First Amendment Center (6)

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The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center does not provide legal representation and does not fund litigation. We’re a nonprofit organization focused on education and information about First Amendment issues.

No, you need a qualified attorney for that. Laws differ from state to state. Martindale, Findlaw and other online legal services offer ways to find lawyers by specialty where you live. However, the information posted on our site may help you and your attorney. Use the search engine for topics or terms that interest you.

The mission of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center is to serve as a nonpartisan source of information, rather than as a participant in legal disputes. Therefore, the Center does not file amicus briefs.

No. We are an educational organization. We provide information and sometimes expert testimony that members of Congress or others may find useful, but we do not lobby.

Our website has a wealth of information that may be useful in your project. Search the site for your topic and other terms that interest you. If you quote or paraphrase our information, be sure to cite where you obtained it.

Yes, as schedules and duties permit, Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center experts speak to groups and conferences or participates in programs. Generally, the inviting group must fund travel-related expenses for the First Amendment Center participant. The Center welcomes invitations to participate in nonpartisan, educational events about First Amendment issues.

Free Spirit (11)

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The deadline is Feb. 1, 2018. Applications must include the completed application, journalistic work, two essays, letters of reference, a high school transcript, and a color headshot photo. Incomplete applications will not be accepted.

Applications may be accepted beyond the deadline from select states that have an insufficient number of qualified applicants.

No. Applicants are not required to list SAT or ACT scores, because juniors typically don’t take the exams until spring. However, scores should be supplied if they are available.

Two essays with a maximum of 500 words each must be submitted with the application. First, applicants must explain why they want to pursue a career in journalism; and second, what characteristics make them a “free spirit.”

No. We require samples of writing, photography, audio, video or other media that were produced for publication or for classroom assignments.

All candidates will be notified by mail no later than mid-May 2017. Recipients will be required to sign an acknowledgment form to confirm their acceptance. Scholars’ names will be posted online in early June 2017.

Freedom of Speech (73)

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Courts are much divided on this issue. Among the federal appeals courts, the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th and 8th Circuits have seemed receptive to students’ claims of free-expression rights concerning their hair. But the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th Circuits have seemed unreceptive.

Many cases involving student hair today deal not with length but color. For example, a high school student from Virginia sued his school district in federal court after school officials suspended him for having blue hair. A federal judge reinstated the student, finding a violation of his constitutional rights.

Generally, courts that have found a constitutional issue have ruled along similar lines, claiming that a student’s choice of hair color and style represents either a First Amendment free-expression issue or a 14th Amendment liberty or equal-protection interest. Some courts have even pointed out that regulating students’ hair has a more permanent effect than regulating their dress, because outside of school, they can change their clothes more readily than their hairstyles or color.

Conversely, the courts that have sided with school districts have generally ruled that students’ wearing of long hair “does not rise to the dignity of a protectable constitutional issue.”

Either way, different courts have simply come to different legal conclusions. As a result, students’ rights in this regard largely depend on where they live.

The California Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1970 in the case of In Re Kay, 1 Cal.3d 930. “Audience activities, such as heckling, interrupting, harsh questioning, and booing, even though they may be impolite and discourteous, can nonetheless advance the goals of the First Amendment. For many citizens such participation in public meetings, whether supportive or critical of the speaker, may constitute the only manner in which they can express their views to a large number of people.”

The court continued: “‘Disturbances’ of meetings arise in a wide variety of forms; the modern techniques of the ‘politics of peaceful confrontation’ frequently result in a clash of ideological expressions which may, in many senses, ‘disturb’ a meeting. Without doubt petitioners’ conduct in the instant case, including clapping … was ‘closely akin to “pure speech”’” (quoting Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District).

The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that city licensing laws must contain some procedural safeguards in order to guard against censorship. In its 1990 decision FW/PBS v. City of Dallas, the high court said that a licensing scheme for adult businesses must contain two such safeguards:

  • The decision to issue or deny a license must be made within a “specified and reasonable time period
  • There must be the possibility of prompt judicial review in the event that the license is erroneously denied

The justices, like the court panel that first assessed the law, was sharply divided. But the five-justice majority did speak clearly and decisively in support of almost the entire law. Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the main opinion, and Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were also in the majority. Citing extensive evidence of the influence of campaign money on legislation and elections, the majority gave deference to Congress in fashioning laws that would prevent companies, individuals and parties from circumventing earlier campaign laws. The majority gave less weight than it usually does to First Amendment concerns, prompting dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia to call it a “sad day” for freedom of speech. Also dissenting in most parts of the decision were Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. The only major provision of the law struck down was the ban on campaign donations by minors. The Court unanimously agreed that this section of the law unconstitutionally infringed on the speech rights of minors.

Many books have been subject to censorship, although most are targeted for (a) vulgar or sexually explicit language; (b) “racist” language; (c) gay and lesbian themes; and/or (d) discussions of witchcraft and the occult.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom keeps track of efforts to censor books and has published a list, “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” Books new and old make up the list, from the 19th century classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” to the critically acclaimed “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” to the current-day best-selling Harry Potter series.

Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” receives complaints for a rape scene and for being perceived by some as “anti-white.” Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” has been subject to censorship for language deemed demeaning to African-Americans. J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular Harry Potter series draws the ire of some who say it celebrates witchcraft.

School districts should develop policies on how to handle challenges to books and how to ensure that decisions regarding removal of books from the library or the curriculum respect the Constitution and reflect sound educational policy. School officials must also ensure that a book is not removed simply because a concerned parent or special-interest group dislikes its content.


Particularly in situations involving illegal or unethical behavior, the press takes seriously its responsibility to keep the public informed. People want and need to know what is happening on public campuses, especially if they have children attending school or thinking of doing so. As with any important story, reporters will want to learn as much about the people involved or suspected of being involved so that they can assemble the uncontested facts into an accurate picture of the situation. This goal would be served by having access to some of the records protected by FERPA, because the information would help the reporters to understand that situation and the individuals who might be involved. Without access to the government-controlled educational records, pieces are left out of the puzzle.

Freedom of the Press (39)

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Under FCC rules, broadcast indecency is “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” By “contemporary community standards,” the FCC means the standard “of an average broadcast viewer or listener, and not the sensibilities of any individual complainant.”

It’s the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, a federal health-privacy law that went into effect in 2003.

Some states passed “right of reply” statutes to require newspapers that criticized candidates to give those candidates space to respond. In Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court said such statutes violated the First Amendment, because the government cannot compel a newspaper to publish information. “A responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal,” the Court said, “but press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution, and like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated.”

No. HIPAA does not regulate what the press can report. But it does limit the kinds of information that hospitals and various government agencies can disclose.

Television coverage is not allowed in federal courts. The state courts have been more receptive to allowing television coverage of trials, but none has recognized a right to broadcast a trial. The courts most receptive to cameras in the courtroom allow judges broad discretion in deciding whether to permit televised coverage.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association and its foundation closely monitor the federal and state rules governing cameras in the courtroom. The foundation posts a state-by-state guide of current law regarding cameras and microphones in courtrooms on its website.

Health care information the news media obtains independently is not subject to HIPAA. It may be published or broadcast freely, subject to any newsroom policies limiting the publication of information about minors or the deceased.

Freedom of Religion (89)

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Probably not, but current law is unclear on this point. Although the Equal Access Act does not apply to public schools below the secondary level, some courts have held that the free-speech clause protects the right of middle school or elementary school students to form religious or political clubs on an equal footing with other student-initiated clubs. When the EAA was debated in Congress, many lawmakers expressed doubt that young children could form religious clubs that would be truly initiated and led by students. In addition, younger students are more likely to view religious clubs meeting at the school as “school sponsored.” For these and other reasons, Congress declined to apply equal access below the secondary level.

The Supreme Court has been clear that the simple act of taxation is not in and of itself a violation of either the First Amendment’s free-exercise or establishment clauses. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible for a tax to violate either or both of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. If a tax were targeted in discriminatory ways or became so oppressive that it substantially constrained a religious group’s ability to function, then it could possibly violate the free-exercise clause. Likewise, the administrative details of enforcing a taxation scheme could become so intricate and require so much interaction between the state and a religious organization that a court would find sufficient entanglement to violate the establishment clause, as interpreted through the Lemon test.

Yes. The First Amendment applies to all levels of government, including public schools. Although the courts have permitted school officials to limit the rights of students under some circumstances, the courts have also recognized that students — like all citizens — are guaranteed the rights protected by the First Amendment.

Earlier in our history, however, the First Amendment did not apply to the states — and thus not to public schools. When adopted in 1791, the First Amendment applied only to Congress and the federal government (“Congress shall make no law …”). This meant that when public schools were founded in the mid-19th century, students could not make First Amendment claims against the actions of school officials.

The restrictions on student speech lasted into the 20th century. In 1908, for example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that school officials could suspend two students for writing a poem ridiculing their teachers that was published in a local newspaper. The Wisconsin court reasoned, “such power is essential to the preservation of order, decency, decorum, and good government in the public schools.” And in 1915, the California Court of Appeals ruled that school officials could suspend a student for criticizing and “slamming” school officials in a student assembly speech.

In fact, despite the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which provides that “no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it was not until 1925, by way of the Supreme Court case of Gitlow v. New York, that the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment is one of the “liberties” incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In subsequent cases, the Court has applied all of the freedoms of the First Amendment to the states — and thus to public schools — through the 14th Amendment. But not until 1943, in the flag-salute case of West Virginia v. Barnette, did the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly extend First Amendment protection to students attending public schools.

The Barnette case began when several students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the flag for religious reasons. School officials punished the students and their parents. The students then sued, claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights.

At the time that the students sued, Supreme Court precedent painted a bleak picture for their chances. Just a few years earlier, the Court had ruled in favor of a similar compulsory flag-salute law in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. As the Court stated in that ruling, “national unity is the basis of national security.”

However, the high court reversed itself in Barnette, holding that the free-speech and free exercise of religion provisions of the First Amendment guarantee the right of students to be excused from the flag salute on grounds of conscience.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson said that the Supreme Court must ensure “scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” The Court then warned of the dangers of coercion by government in oft-cited, eloquent language:

“If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Schools should have policies concerning absences that take into account the religious needs and requirements of students. Students should be allowed a reasonable number of excused absences, without penalties, to observe religious holidays within their traditions. Students may be asked to complete makeup assignments or tests in conjunction with such absences.

The Equal Access Act does not take away a school’s authority to establish reasonable time, place, and manner regulations for a limited open forum. For example, a school may establish for its student clubs a reasonable meeting time on any one school day, a combination of days, or all school days. It may assign the rooms in which student groups can meet. It may enforce order and discipline during the meetings. The key, however, is that the school’s time, place, and manner regulations must be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and neutral in viewpoint.

Again, current law is unclear on this point. If school officials decide to allow middle school students to form religious or political clubs, then at the very least the school should have in place a clear policy and ground rules for the clubs, consistent with the EAA, and explain that the student clubs are not school-sponsored (see Good News Club v. School Dist. of Ladue, 8th Cir. 1994).

Freedom of Assembly (13)

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Simply attending peaceful meetings of an organization will not make a person guilty, even if other members of that organization commit lawless acts. Guilt can be shared only if the organization and its members have a common plan to break the law.

In most cases, yes. Most states consider shopping malls to be the private property of the mall owner. Just as with any piece of private property, owners can make rules regarding that property, including what is appropriate attire. Think of “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case Hudgens v. National Labor Relations Board. This case involved a group of labor union members who were picketing inside a privately owned mall. The union members filed suit claiming, in part, that their First Amendment free-speech rights had been violated after they were asked to leave the premises or be arrested for criminal trespass. The court looked at past cases and found that the First Amendment does not prevent a property owner from restricting the exercise of free speech on private property, in this instance, the shopping mall. So, for example, if a mall shopper were asked to cover a shirt that the mall owners found to be offensive, the shopper would have to comply or leave.

New Jersey and California have found their state constitutions to provide more freedoms than the U.S. Constitution — meaning that in these states constitutional rights to free speech can prevail over the private-property interests of mall owners. See Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980). However, most states that have addressed this issue have found in favor of property owners.

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Freedom of assembly is explicitly guaranteed in the First Amendment, securing the right of people to meet for any purpose connected with government. Freedom of association protects the activities and composition of such meetings. This right is not explicitly set out in the Constitution but is instead derived from fundamental privacy interests and the rights of speech, petition and assembly.

Any and every group is allowed to meet to discuss ideas and peaceably promote its point of view, even if that message is distasteful to others. Whether through parades, peaceful protests, picketing or simply sharing ideas, an organization formed for expressive purposes may engage in “group speech” to advance its mission. Freedom of association also protects the gathering of people for personal, private purposes, such as the meeting of family members.

Groups that wish to engage in public activism must abide by generally applicable laws, such as criminal trespass or prohibitions on litter, excess noise, crowd congestion and permit requirements. If the government seeks to intervene in the internal affairs of a group in a way that impairs its advocacy, the regulation must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest that outweighs any burden on the group’s speech.

This freedom protects the right of people to meet and publicly support a cause or message. It also protects the right of people not to be affiliated with certain messages or ideas. For example, the government cannot force expressive associations to accept unwanted members who would impair the effectiveness of the group. Nor can the government force people to support undesirable causes through required fees or dues as part of belonging to a group.

Freedom to Petition (9)

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Historically, a petition was a written request stating a grievance and requesting relief from a ruling authority such as a king. In modern America, petitioning embraces a range of expressive activities designed to influence public officials through legal, nonviolent means.

The right to petition reaches back at least to the Magna Carta in 1215. The English Declaration of Rights in 1689 confirmed that subjects were entitled to petition the king without fear of prosecution.

Courts seldom address the petition clause in isolation, instead grouping it with other rights to free association and collective speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that the right to petition at least provides the opportunity to institute nonfrivolous lawsuits and mobilize popular support to change existing laws in a peaceful manner.

No. The U.S. Supreme Court has incorporated the petition clause of the First Amendment as part of the 14th Amendment’s guarantees against the states. The petition clause applies equally to state and local governments and protects petitions directed to the judicial, executive and legislative branches.

The First Amendment does not mandate that the government consider the public’s petitions or actually provide any “redress.” At a minimum, the government must have a mechanism for receiving complaints and grievances from the public, even if only to file them without consideration. Of course, due process — the guarantee that justice will be administered fairly — would apply if a citizen’s “petition” took the form of a court case.

No, parties can attempt to file such suits, but the First Amendment’s petition clause guarantees the right of all interested parties to attempt to enlist the government on their side of an issue or dispute. The vast majority of the case law and commentary — both popular and scholarly — supports that right, and suggests that the remedy for dissatisfaction with the statements of another party is more speech directed toward government, not more litigation.

Students (4)

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It depends. If you attend a private school, the First Amendment will not protect you from any restrictions your school places on your right to protest. (The First Amendment prevents the government from punishing you for your speech. It doesn’t prevent a private organization for punishing you for your speech.)

If you attend a public school, you do have First Amendment rights, even at school. However, your rights are more limited than the rights of adults. Your school can punish you for taking part in a protest if it causes substantial disruption of school activities, or if it invades the rights of others.

This standard was established by the Supreme Court in a case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The students in that case wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, and were suspended for refusing to take them off. The Supreme Court found that their First Amendment rights had been violated, because the armbands were considered a non-disruptive expression of their political point of view.

You may decide that you are willing to incur those penalties, but remember to consider alternative methods of advocacy and protest as well.  Sometimes civil disobedience–challenging the rules on matters of conscience and policy–is justifiable.  But sometimes there are several different ways to achieve the same goal.

This is may be a fire code violation–contact the proper authorities if you are concerned.

You may not be able to vote–but you have the First Amendment rights to speak, assemble, and petition.

Organizing marches and rallies can raise public awareness for your cause. Doing so off-campus and outside of school hours will be protected by the First Amendment.  Reach out and collaborate with as many people as possible–parents, teachers, school administrators, and members of your community–in order to have the greatest possible impact.

The right to petition means the right to ask for the laws that you want and speak out against the ones that you don’t want.  Contact your elected officials and tell them what you think.   Letters, phone calls, and personal interactions at town hall meetings have more of an impact than emails and tweets.  Contact your Senators and members of Congress, since they’re elected to serve you.  Don’t forget that state and local officials also make laws that impact you.  The My Reps website allows you to find and contact your federal, state, county, and local elected officials.  This guide by  former Congressional staffer Emily Ellsworth contains some very helpful tips on what you should say and do.

Parents (1)

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First, you may want to reach out to the school administrators and/or the school board and make your own voice heard on how you feel about this policy.

In giving advice or instructions to your children, you should consider the potential penalties but also discuss the underlying issues behind the walk-out.  You may wish to help your child with alternative forms of activism–for instance, by contacting your legislators on their behalf.  (After all, you have a vote.)

This could also be an opportunity to work collectively with other parents and your school leaders to organize a community discussion about the political issues, and also the on the the larger civic lessons surrounding free speech, protest, and representative democracy.

Teachers (1)

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If you’re caught between students motivated to join in protests, marches or other kinds of activities that are under the general heading of “free expression” [that is actual speech or expressive conduct] and your administration’s view of such actions as disruptive and therefore prohibited, perhaps you can strike a compromise between these groups  – a task that teachers’ lounge chatter daily confirms. How about leading your students in discussion about the history of protest in America, or the explore the various sides of what Supreme Court justices wrote in the “Tinker” court case.

While the 7-2 majority on the court supported student free speech rights – with some caveats – one justice wrote that the decision would usher in an entirely new era of “permissiveness” that it seems would wreck American public schools. To engage your students in a discussion, you can find review the basic information about the case and use this discussion guide from Newseum Education.

School Administrators (1)

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You first face the decision of whether to forbid the walk-out at all or to simply deal with the disruption caused by a walk-out.  (This decision might depend on whether you are considering the disruption caused by a 17-minute walkout versus that of an all-day walkout).  You then face the decision of whether or not to punish the participants.  Note that a punishment must be proportional to the misconduct committed.  Furthermore, if you decide to mark truant the students who participate in a walk-out, keep in mind that the punishment for them cannot be any more severe than the punishment for students who are truant for another reason.

Simply locking students into their classrooms in order to keep them from leaving may well be a fire code violation. Such a “lockdown” lacks the urgent “true threat” justification that a court might accept with regard to an active, dangerous incident in your building or near your location.

You should also consider that there may be another approach altogether. Given that we live in an age where there is much concern that young people don’t understand the Constitution or support free speech, punishing them for exercising it, even if the even if the Tinker decision gives school administrators that discretion, seems counterproductive. In the words of law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, “Schools cannot teach the importance of the First Amendment and simultaneously not follow it.”

This could be a teaching moment for your students and your community.  In cooperation with students, parents, and teachers, you may wish to organize a town hall meeting in which all sides surrounding the political issue or debate are head.  Newseum Ed’s Teaching Controversial Topics instruction guide provides tools and tips for educators on leading classroom conversations about sensitive topics.  

You can also use this as an opportunity to educate your students about how the First Amendment works and how far their rights extend.  You can start by introducing students to what the limits of free speech are, both inside of school and out of it, with discussion materials from Newseum Ed about what counts as a violation of the First Amendment and what you can and can’t say in school.





Lawyers (8)

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Yes, students do possess First Amendment rights at school.   The U.S. Supreme Court famously wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  However, the Court cautioned that students’ rights must be considered “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.”

That is an excellent question.  The determination of what constitutes a “substantial disruption” is decided on a case-by-case basis.  The interruption of classes, threats to teachers, racially harassing conduct and significant race-based tension, fights or violent behavior on school grounds, the flooding of angry calls from parents, the canceling of school events, and emotional distress suffered by teachers have all been considered substantial disruptions within the meaning of the Tinker standard.

No, courts have stated that school officials do not have to wait for an actual disruption or riot.  The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explained in Karp v. Becken (1973): “The First Amendment does not require school officials to wait until disruption actually occurs before they may act.”

This where the “reasonable forecast” part of the standard comes in play.   In Dodd v. Rambis (S.D. 1981), a federal district court judge reasoned that students’ distribution of leaflets urging fellow students to engage in another student walkout was substantially disruptive to school activities.  The judge explained: “The First Amendment does not require school officials to forestall action until disruption of the educational system actually occurs. Indeed, this is the very essence of the forecast rule.”

For example, in many cases involving Confederate flag garb, courts have reasoned that a significant amount of race-based tension at the school is enough to satisfy the “reasonable forecast of substantial” disruption standard.

Usually, courts find that student walkouts are substantially disruptive under the Tinker standard.  They focus on the fact that classes and class schedules are disrupted and the students who remain in school are distracted.

Furthermore, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Corales v. Bennett (2009) reasoned that a high school’s anti-truancy policy was a “content neutral rule that furthers an important interest unrelated to the suppression of expression.”  The appeals court explained that the anti-truancy rule “furthers several substantial government interests, including enforcing compulsory education, keeping minors safe from the influences of the street, maximizing school funding based on attendance  and limiting potential liability for negligent failure to supervise a truant student properly.”

The other part of the Tinker test is sometimes called the “invasion of the rights” prong or “invasion of the rights of others” test.   The Court in Tinker explained that student speech is not protected by the First Amendment if it impinges on the rights of other students.  The Court has not explained the contours of this test.

However, lower courts have applied this test to prohibit student speech that sexually harasses other students or to student speech containing anti-gay themes.  For example, the 9th Circuit ruled in Harper v. Poway Unified School District (2006) that school officials could prohibit a student from wearing t-shirts containing Biblical verses condemning homosexuality. The appeals court explained: “Speech that attacks high school students who are members of minority groups that have historically been oppressed, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, and made to feel inferior, serves to injure and intimidate them, as well as to damage their sense of security and interfere with their opportunity to learn.”

Absolutely not.  U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel expressed this well years ago in Beussink v. Woodland IV School District (E.D. Mo. 1998), writing “Disliking or being upset by the content of a student’s speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting student speech under Tinker.

In a case out of Tennessee, Giles County public school officials contended that a t-shirt with pro-gay and lesbian themes would be disruptive to the school. A review federal district court judge disagreed in Young v. Giles County (M.D. Tenn. 2015), writing that “[m]erely invoking the word ‘disruption’ falls far short of the showing that Tinker requires.”