A Georgia law prohibiting any non-student from upbraiding, insulting, or abusing a public school official in the presence of a minor infringes on too much protected speech, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled. The case shows the importance of the overbreadth doctrine – the principle that laws must not sweep too broadly and impact protected speech.
The law provides in pertinent part:
Any parent, guardian, or person other than a student at the public school in question who has been advised that minor children are present and who continues to upbraid, insult, or abuse any public school teacher, public school administrator, or public school bus driver in the presence and hearing of a pupil while on the premises of any public school . . . shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.00.
Michael Antonio West, who was arrested and charged under the law, challenged its constitutionality. A trial court denied his argument, but West filed an interlocutory appeal.
The Georgia high court emphasized in West v. State that the overbreadth doctrine ensures “breathing space” for constitutionally protected speech. The court noted that the plain language of the law would criminalize not only unprotected fighting words, but also critical speech that should receive protection.
The state high court also noted that the law did not require that the critical speech cause a substantial disruption of school activities – the standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court for student speech in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).
The Georgia Supreme Court expressed even more concern that the state law only prohibited critical speech of school officials. After all, perhaps the leading purpose of the First Amendment is to protect individuals’ ability to criticize government officials.
The court concluded that this law, “though perhaps well intentioned, neither regulates unprotected speech nor is appropriately tailored to meet its intended objective and is therefore overbroad.”
The Georgia high court’s decision is sound. Laws criminalizing speech – even on school grounds – must be narrowly drawn to not suffocate protected expression. Critical speech needs “breathing space” to survive and thrive in a free society.