Public School Officials Need First Amendment Lesson

Giles County (Tennessee) public school officials got a lesson in First Amendment principles recently from U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp.

Richland High School senior Rebecca Young had worn a t-shirt on the first day of her senior year with the message: “Some People are Gay, Get Over It.” The t-shirt caused no disruption from her classmates or teachers.

However, her principal was upset by the t-shirt and allegedly told Young she could not wear to school “any t-shirt referencing LGBT rights.” School officials later claimed such action was necessary to protect Young from would-be harassers and bullies.

Young, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, filed a lawsuit in federal court. She sought a preliminary injunction, preventing school officials from banning the wearing of any pro-LGBT clothing.

In his Dec. 22 ruling, Judge Sharp correctly identified the controlling legal standard from the U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In Tinker, the Court ruled that public school officials cannot censor student speech unless they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities.

In other words, school officials can’t ban student speech because they don’t like it or fear it might offend some people. Instead, they can prohibit it only to prevent disruptions.

“Student expression on LGBT issues is speech on a purely political topic, which falls clearly within the ambit of the First Amendment’s protection,” wrote Judge Sharp. “Merely invoking the word ‘disruption’ falls far short of the showing that Tinker requires.”

The message from Judge Sharp: Public school officials need to respect fundamental First Amendment principles. Students don’t lose their free-speech rights when they go to school.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute First Amendment Center. He is the author of Let The Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011) and Teen Legal RightsHe teaches First Amendment classes at Vanderbilt Law School and the Nashville School of Law.

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