KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: Student Freedom of Expression in a Digital Age

By Paige Duane

In a landmark trial that established student rights in regard to freedom of speech, Tinker versus Des Moines ruled that students “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”. Since that decision in 1969, much has changed. Social media has expanded the domain of expression and blurred the line between what a school can and cannot reasonably censor. 

One case that further defines the precedent for students’ expression online is BL Versus Mahoney. After being banned from her cheerleading squad for making a social media post she made containing profane content, student BL took legal action and sued the school. The court ultimately ruled in her favor on the basis that her actions took place outside of school hours and did not cause “substantial disruption” to the learning environment. This trial confirms that as long as it does not occur on school property or infringe upon the rights of others, schools cannot prohibit a student’s expression. 

Another court ruling that was crucial in deciding students’ rights and responsibilities was J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District. In this trial, a student was punished for creating a fake social media account for her school principal. The account jokingly accused him of “hitting on students and their parents”. The court deemed that the school’s punishment for the student, a ten day suspension, was unconstitutional as the account was created outside of school hours and “was so outrageous that no one could have taken it seriously”. This trial establishes that a student’s expression cannot be restricted if it is offensive towards a person or group as long as it is obviously a parody.

However, the constitution does not protect student expression in every scenario. One example that illustrates the limitations of students’ freedom of expression is  the trial of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In this case, students attempted to put information in the school newspaper, but the school decided that the topics were too sensitive and refused to let the article be published. The court sided with the school, saying that because the newspaper was school run, the school had the ability to redact the article. This case decided that schools have a right to censor content published during school hours and on a school forum. 

Students’ rights to freedom of expression are constantly evolving. In an age in which everyone has access to a platform to express themselves, it is important to be informed of these rights and responsibilities. By keeping up to date on what can and cannot be posted by students, one can be rest assured that they will not have trouble with school authorities.

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