American Civil Liberties Union Briefers ASK SYBIL LIBERTY
Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE! GET INVOLVED!
We spend a big part of our life in school, so . . .let's make a difference --
* join the student government
* attend school board meetings
* petition the school administration.
* debate among yourselves
YOUR RIGHT TO
EXPRESS YOURSELF FREELY
Students, listen up:
An important part of our education is learning how to participate fully as
citizens in the life of this nation. In order to participate, we need to
keep in mind two very important things. First, the Constitution is the
highest law of this land. Second, the Constitution has a Bill of Rights that
protects the freedoms of each and every American. That includes you and me,
the young people of the nation. So my message to you is KNOW YOUR RIGHTS and
EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS.
The First Amendment guarantees our right to free expression and free
association, which means we have the right to think what we like, say what we
like and write what we like; we can form clubs and organizations, and take
part in demonstrations and rallies. We have the right to do all of that, not
only in our homes or on the street, but also in school. Keep in mind,
though, that private schools have more leeway to set their own rules on free
expression than public schools do.
Sybil, you mean I can speak my mind *in school*?
SYBIL: Yes you can. You have a constitutional right to express your opinions
and beliefs in school, as long as you do so in a way that doesn't disrupt
classes or other school activities. If you hold a protest on the school
steps and block the entrance to the building, then school officials can stop
you. They can also stop you from using language that they think is "vulgar
or obscene," so you'll have an easier time if you can say what you have to
say without using "bad" words or sexual references. The main point is that
your right to free speech is *absolute* unless the principal can prove that
you are "materially and substantially" disrupting the work and routine of the
Some friends of mine and I want to hand out copies of a newspaper we put
together -- our own paper. Can we do that?
SYBIL: You sure can. You have a right to hand out your paper, even if it
contains some unpopular viewpoints, without interference from the principal
or teachers. Again, the only reason school officials would be justified in
stopping you is if you're disrupting school activities in a serious way. I
have to tell you, though, dealing with controversial topics in the _official
school paper_ can be sticky.
You mean if I wanted to publish an article in the school paper that calls for
sex education and condom distribution, or an article on drug abuse, I might
have a problem?
SYBIL: Right. Even though your article discusses something important that a
lot of people are talking about, you might have a problem because of a
decision the U.S. Supreme Court handed down in 1988. The Court ruled, in a
case called _Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier_, that public school
administrators can censor student speech in official school activities --
like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook -- if the
administrators think what the students are saying is "inappropriate" or
Of course, you have a right to that "inappropriate" or "harmful" viewpoint
and you *can* express it, but only through unofficial channels that aren't
paid for by the school -- like your own paper, leaflets or buttons that you
created and paid for. As long as your expression doesn't involve school
money or cause a disruption, it's okay.
Fortunately, some states -- including Colorado, California, Iowa, Kansas and
Massachusetts -- have "High School Free Expression" laws that protect
students' free speech rights. Check with your local ACLU to find out if your
state has such a law.
Suppose one of my teachers is always late to class; he makes insulting
remarks to us; he's halfhearted about his work, and I don't like it. Can
I write about him in the school paper?
SYBIL: Definitely. It's your right to criticize how the people who run your
school do their jobs. But your criticism has to be responsible and not
"libelous." If you print something about your teacher that you know isn't
true just to make him or her look bad, that's *libel* and you could get in
Can I wear buttons or other non-verbal symbols in school to express
what I think?
SYBIL: Yes, you can wear buttons or T-shirts with messages on them as long as
they're not disruptive -- and by the way, just because someone doesn't like
the message doesn't mean you're being disruptive. This right was recognized
by the Supreme Court in 1969 in a case called _Tinker v. Des Moines
Independent Community School District_. In that case, the Court ruled that
high school students could wear black arm bands to school to protest the
More recently, in 1992, a federal court ruled in favor of three California
high school seniors represented by the ACLU, who were suspended for wearing
gang symbols while they were being photographed for the school yearbook. The
court said wearing the symbols didn't cause a major disruption and was
protected by the First Amendment.
Can I dress or wear my hair any way I want when I'm at school?
SYBIL: That depends on the laws in your state. In some states, courts have
ruled that students can wear their hair however they want as long as the
hairstyle isn't a safety hazard (for example, if your hair is very long you'd
have to tie it back during a science experiment). Courts in other states
have allowed schools to impose hair codes, and where hair codes are
permitted, so are dress codes. Some schools say they need these codes to
prevent gang activity and violence. Check with your local ACLU about the
laws in your state.
If your school has hair and dress codes you think are unfair and you want to
challenge them, just be aware that a court probably won't overturn the codes
unless the judge finds that they're really unreasonable, or that they
discriminate against certain students.
Can I be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance?
SYBIL: No. Some people don't want to say the Pledge on religious grounds,
because they disagree with the words in some way or as a silent protest
against our government's foreign or domestic policies. You have the right to
sit or stand silently during the Pledge if you choose.
Can I pray in school?
SYBIL: Absolutely. You can pray on the school grounds as a private activity
-- for example, in a classroom between classes or in the cafeteria before you
eat lunch. But the Constitution forbids school officials from imposing *any*
religion on students by dictating when and where they can pray, or by making
prayer a part of the school curriculum.
| "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers |
| shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech |
| . . . at the schoolhouse gates." |
| U.S. Supreme Court |
| Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) |
My school library doesn't have certain books because my principal thinks
they're "inappropriate" for us. Is that censorship?
SYBIL: It's censorship if the principal's reasons for not allowing the books
are "narrowly partisan or political," meaning he just doesn't agree with the
authors' viewpoints. In a 1982 case called _Board of Education, Island Trees
Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico_, the Supreme Court ruled that the
members of a school board couldn't remove books from a school library just
because they didn't agree with their content. But in many communities around
the country, school administrators and librarians are under heavy pressure
from religious groups to censor what kids read and study.
_I say_: No one has any business deciding what we can and cannot read. You,
your teachers and the school librarian can challenge book censorship at your
school in court. The freedom to read is the freedom to think. That's
something worth fighting for!
Your local ACLU office can answer any questions you may have about your right
to freedom of expression and your other constitutional rights.
To obtain a copy of _The Rights of Students_, a 181-page ACLU handbook, send
name, address & check/money order for $6.95 to ACLU Dept. L, P.O. Box 794,
Medford, NY 11763.
A C L U
Produced by the Public Education Department
American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036