School of Block
In today’s day and age, political discourse has dominated many popular social media networks. With the ease of instant access to news on social media outlets, many school-aged students are politically curious and informed. Students are engaging with others and forming their own beliefs and opinions, especially in the political realm.1 Aside from their engagement on social media, students often choose to express themselves and their political beliefs offline too in the school setting. This can manifest itself in various ways; clothing choices, newspaper articles, student clubs, or even distribution of pamphlets and spontaneous engagement in the school halls. Although students are generally encouraged to express themselves at school during this fundamental stage of intellectual growth, allowing students to speak freely about controversial political issues presents some challenges for public schools. Juggling the maintenance of a safe environment for all on the one hand, while also allowing free political speech, debate, and exchange of ideas on the other, can be extremely difficult.
While this essential right allows for dissemination of information and debate, does this freedom extend to school-aged children with strong, often contentious, political beliefs too? In Tinker vs. Des Moines, the Court was faced with a case concerning public school students who expressed their political opinion in school by wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.4 In Tinker, the court established the current standard on student free speech, where students do not “shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”5 However, while public school students possess the First Amendment right to free speech in school, the Court also found that these rights may be limited. For example, public schools have discretion to suppress speech if it creates, or likely would create, a material and substantial disruption in the school’s work and discipline.6 Administrators can often grapple with where to draw the line between political expression and school disruption or chaos.
Balancing student’s First Amendment rights of expression against a school’s need for safety and comfort of others can be challenging indeed. Specifically, schools may be put in a tough spot when the exercise of free speech counters longstanding school policy, such as making sure that all students feel welcomed and accepted. For example, what should a public high school do when a student chooses to express his/her political beliefs by showing up to school in a Trump 2024 hat, while other students complain that they feel threatened or unsafe? What if the student goes further and is seen yelling to a crowd surrounding him/herself that the Democrats stole the election? While speech that would likely create a substantial disruption may be regulated by schools 7, the line between political and hate speech is often blurred. The court has not applied this standard to hate speech generally, where a threat of substantial disruption is not present. How should administrators deal with this vague standard in the current politically charged climate?
One way in which schools can retain some control without stripping First Amendment rights is by allowing students to speak freely and express themselves in a controlled, non-disruptive, manner.8 They may open monitored dialogue and stress respect with regards to the ideas of others. Schools should have teachers present to facilitate debate and the important exchange of ideas. Discourse and dialogue are important for growth of self-identity and can be beneficial for young students if accomplished in a safe environment. Public schools should use this opportunity as a teaching moment for their students, preparing them for their departure to college and beyond.
See, e.g., DallasNews.com Staff, Protests, Pandemic, Politics are Shaping the Social Media Identities of North Texas Teens, The Dall. Morning News (Sept. 7, 2020, 4:00 PM), https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2020/09/07/protests-pandemic-politics-are-shaping-the-social-media-identities-of-north-texas-teens/ [https://perma.cc/8FHN-B9LK].↩
See David L. Hudson Jr., K-12 Public School Student Expression Overview, Freedom Forum Institute, https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/k-12-public-school-student-expression/(Last updated March 2018) [https://perma.cc/6YN5-AMEZ].↩
U.S. Const. amend. I. ↩
Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 504 (1969).↩
Id. at 506.↩
See id. at 513.↩
See, e.g., Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Election 2020: Engaging Students in Civic Discourse, Stavros Niarchos Found. SNF Agora Inst. at Johns Hopkins, https://snfagora.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Election2020_FINAL.pdf.↩