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In 1787 our forefathers ratified the constitution of the United States
of America, which contains the most important document to any American citizen,
the Bill of Rights. The first amendment of the Bill of Rights states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the establishment thereof; or
abridging the freedom of speech; or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
government for a redress of grievances.
these freedoms (commonly called the freedom of expression) are of the most
important rights in a truly democratic society. Without them there would be
no new ideas; we would all conform under totalitarian rule for fear of
punishment. However, when I, a common student at West Rowan High School try
to express my feelings on "the state of the Bill of Rights in schools today" by
making a computer presentation in multimedia class, my work is declared "bad"
and my teacher and assistant principal do one of the most un-American things
imaginable: they censored it. I had to re-make the presentation and lighten
the harsh tone, and also erase the anarchy symbol from it. The teacher said
that she was worried about me for reasons such as my feelings on the freedom of
religion were almost satanic, because I said teachers should not be able to
publicly practice religion in schools because it will encourage students to
become a part of that religion. The presentation was neither slanderous nor
obscene, but it did criticize teachers and administrators calling them "fascist
dictators". At first I was angry at the school because I could wear clothing
that was obscene or contained liquor advertisements, now they have completely
taken away my freedom of speech. This of course proved my argument that
teachers and administrators are totalitarians. As one journalist put it, "If
Freedom of expression becomes merely an empty slogan in the minds of enough
children, it will be dead by the time we are adults." I soon began reading more
and more about the freedom of speech in schools and every time a subject as
such came up the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the student declaring the
action unconstitutional under the first amendment. As I was reading Nat
Hentoff's book The First Freedom I came across a story in which a student wrote
a newspaper article criticizing the school administration, soon after he ran
for student government and was taken off the ballot for his critique.
Unfortunately he did not fight it in court. The principal sharply taught the
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States Constitution. The freedom of expression in school is marred by society
but not completely dissolved by the administration.
The 1969 supreme court ruling Tinker v. Des Moins Community Schools
defined a student's freedom of speech best. John and Mary Beth Tinker wore
black armbands to school as a protest of the Vietnam war. It was a silent
protest; the Tinker's never caused one problem, although some students did make
threats at them. The school's administrators made them take them off. Their
case made it all the way to the US Supreme Court, where it won a 7-2 ruling.
(Pascoe, 96) Justice Abe Fortas gave an excellent interpretation of a
students freedom of speech when he said:
"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed
their rights at the schoolhouse gate... In our system, state-
operated schools may not be the enclaves of totalitarianism.
School officials do not possess absolute authority over their
students. Students in school as well as out of school are
'persons' under our constitution. ...Students may not be regarded
as closed circuit recipients of only that which the State wishes to
communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of
those sentiments that are officially approved".
In essence Fortas stated that a student could say whatever they wanted, no
matter what it was. However, The Court acknowledged that there would be times
when expression should be limited; such as if a student disrupted classwork,
"created substantial disorder," or infringed on the rights of others. The fact
that the administration thought it might cause a disturbance was not enough.
The court said:
" Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble.
Any variation from the majority's opinion may inspire fear.
Any word spoken, in class in the lunchroom, or on the campus
may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our
Constitution says we must take this risk."
Tinker 's opinion stood as a rule until 1983 when Hazelwood School
District v. Kuhlmeier changed academic history again. Students in Hazelwood
wrote articles on teen pregnancy and divorce in their student newspaper The
Spectrum, and their principal deleted them because they were "inappropriate".
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school because they said the school
shouldn't be required to endorse ideas it considered unsuitable. This decision
gave administrators the right to censor newspapers, plays and many other
activities. Everything the students printed was fact and they should be able
to say whatever they want as long as it isn't libelous.
Later in 1986, Bethel School District v. Matthew Fraser further defined
the extent of a student's rights. Fraser made a speech nominating a friend for
student-government and used a few lightly disguised sexual innuendoes. He was
subsequently suspended for it. The Court upheld his speech was obscene because
of the strong sexual metaphor that follows:
"I know a man who is firm. He is firm in his pants he is firm in his
shirt, his character is firm-- but most...of all his belief in you, the
students of Bethel, is firm.
Jeff Kuhlman is a man who takes his point and pounds it in. If
necessary he will take an issue and nail it to the wall. He doesn't attack
things in spurts- he drives hard, pushing and pushing until finally- he
Jeff is a man who will go to the very end- even the climax for each and
every one of you.
So vote for Jeff for A.S.B. vice-president- he'll never come between
you and the best our high school can be." This decision further defined a
student's freedom of speech by stating that a student may not say anything
The first amendment is the most important one because, without it there
would be no new ideas. It is a shame our country's students must live under
the dictatorship commonly called the "School Board." It is thought that freedom
of speech would cause anarchy, but in most instances it is perfectly acceptable.
Our government needs to revise and outline a students rights to avoid confusion,
and give pupils the rights they deserve.