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.”
The Supreme Court in Tinker developed a test for evaluating whether school officials can censor student expression without violating the First Amendment. The test is known as the “substantial disruption” test. Under this test, school officials may prohibit student speech if they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a material interference or substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.
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. The Court in Tinker declared that “undifferitienated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to over the right to freedom of expression.” School officials must have some evidence or a reasoned judgment that speech will cause problems before they engage in blanket censorship.
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.”
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.”