By Rosie Kean
Students gathered in Knight Hall Oct. 13 to listen to Frank LoMonte as he told narratives of pivotal court cases responsible for students’ right to free speech.
Unlike other issues, such as gay marriage, student rights have not progressed, said LoMonte, the executive director for the Student Press Law Center, an agency created to educate student journalists about their rights.
A contributing factor to the lack of progression is the struggle between having free speech on a college campus and ensuring a campus is a safe environment for people of all backgrounds.
“It’s useful for students to be aware of their rights, especially if they can be infringed upon,” said freshman computer science major Trulee Riley.
LoMonte’s lecture, titled “From the Schoolhouse Gate to the Jailhouse Door: Constitutional Rights on Campus,” was part of the university’s “Democracy Then and Now,” a campus initiative “exploring the central role of public education in the development of American democracy, according to the this university’s website
In his lecture, LoMonte discussed key cases in the evolution of free speech for students.
Earl Wooster protested his school’s inadequate fire exits. The school demanded he retract his statement, but Wooster refused and took the case to court.
Back then, there was no constitutional basis that would have allowed Wooster to win the case, LoMonte said.
1925 – Gitlow v. New York
Benjamin Gitlow, a member of the Socialist Party of America, challenged his arrest charge of criminal anarchy for advocating the overthrow of government in a newspaper he managed.
The Supreme Court said Gitlow was rightfully convicted under New York’s criminal anarchy law, which prohibited spreading materials that advocated a violent overthrow of the government.
Ironically, the court also ruled that the 14th amendment held that an individual’s speech was protected against local, state and federal government. This was a small step in gaining free speech rights.
Court decisions reflect society’s values at that time. Courts also reflect society’s attitude about education, LoMonte said. People’s ideas of what role schools should provide have changed throughout time. Sometimes, courts viewed schools as a parental figure that could punish students, and, other times, courts decided that schools don’t have the right to suppress students’ voices.
Two students who identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to say the pledge of allegiance because it went against their faith.
“The courtroom is not the arena for debating issues of educational policy,” the Supreme Court decided and left this matter to the school’s discretion.
In 1943, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. Students now had the right to refuse to say the pledge of allegiance and salute the American flag.
Free speech rights are finally improving for students.
1969 Tinker v. Des Moines
High school students wore armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The school did not approve, and the case went to court.
“State-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism,” the Supreme Court’s opinion stated. The court determined that wearing armbands was a form of symbolic speech protected by the Constitution.
This was another step forward for students’ free speech rights.
However, the improvement didn’t last long.
A high school newspaper decided to run a two-page spread about issues that are important to students, such as teen pregnancy and divorce. The school’s administration didn’t like that. The Supreme Court decided schools have the authority to refuse to sponsor student speech.
Students could not speak freely under a vehicle for communication, like a newspaper, provided by their school.
Rights of students continued to worsen in more recent cases.
“It’s crazy to hear all these stories about other students who are just like me who have been oppressed by the government and Supreme Court,” said Diana Kavadias, a freshman letters and sciences major.
2007 Morse v. Frederick
The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not prohibit schools from suppressing students’ speech if it advocates illegal drug use.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion, “It cannot be seriously suggested that the first amendment freedom of speech encompasses a student’s right to speak in public schools.”
Kavadias thought these Supreme Court decisions are very relevant to students today.
“It really shows a different perspective of democracy because, most of the time, people think about the legislative and executive branches,” Kavadias said. “A lot of times, people don’t think about the Supreme Court and how big an effect it has on public life.”
A teenage girl was sexually assaulted by two classmates, one of whom was on the basketball team. The girl, a cheerleader for her school, refused to participate in cheering for her attacker at a basketball game.
She was kicked off the cheerleading team for silently refusing to cheer. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, “In her capacity as cheerleader, H.S. served as a mouthpiece through which [the district] could disseminate speech—namely, support for its athletic teams.”
The girl was referred to as H.S. in the court because she was a minor at the time.
LaMonte said calling a victim of sexual assault a “mouthpiece” for the school represents the “dehumanization of young people” by schools and the legal system.
The rise of social media has incited panic across schools and employers, LaMonte said.
All the Supreme Court’s decisions have no basis in the digital world. Up until last year, the word “Facebook” was never heard in the Supreme Court.
LoMonte said social media is a “uniquely unprotected” form of speech, and it is more threatening than other forms of speech because it can be widespread and very powerful.
LoMonte likened this response to social media to past societal opinions on issues like interracial marriage and, more recently, gay marriage.
One day in the future, people will look back on how social media was treated as an unprotected and feared source of speech and say, “I can’t believe we ever thought that way,” LoMonte said.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Jennifer Moo on Flickr.
Rosie Kean is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.