'STUDENT RIGHTS: The First Amendment' Pamphlet
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise 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."
THE 1ST AMENDMENT
OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION
This pamphlet is about students’ rights and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The info here applies to K-12 public school students in Rhode Island. Keep in mind that policies will vary from district to district, and more info on these issues can usually be found in a school’s student handbook.
WHAT IS THE FIRST AMENDMENT?
- FREEDOM OF RELIGION - Freedom of religion means the right to practice whatever religion we choose – or no religion at all – without the government getting involved or promoting religion itself.
- FREEDOM OF THE PRESS - Freedom of the press is the right to distribute information to others.
- FREE SPEECH AND EXPRESSION - The right to free speech is the right to speak our mind, share ideas and beliefs, and express ourselves.
- FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY - The right to peacefully assemble means we have the right to gather in groups and to peacefully protest.
- FREEDOM TO PETITION - The right to sue the government for violating our rights, and to lobby for laws that we believe in.
FREEDOM of RELIGION
There are two parts to the First Amendment right to the “freedom of religion.” The first part is that the government cannot do things that promote religion or have a religious purpose. This means that public school officials – who are part of the government - must be neutral when it comes to religion and may not impose any religious ideas on students. The second part of this right is that everyone has a right to practice the religion of their choice – or no religion at all – without the government getting involved. In public school, this means that students are free to practice their religion as long as they do not disrupt school activities or violate other’s rights. Specifically, students are free to: pray, wear religious symbols or clothing, talk about their faith, and invite others to join their religious group.
PRAYER IN SCHOOL
The Constitution protects students who engage in prayer. This means that students have the right to pray alone or in groups and to discuss their religious views with their peers as long as they are not disruptive and don't force other students to participate. Students can also hand out religious literature in school as long as they obey school rules about distributing written materials. School districts may not promote or endorse religious beliefs, and they are also prohibited from restricting students’ freedom to express their religious beliefs. Furthermore, school officials may not lead classes in prayer or try to persuade students to participate in religious activities – even if those who do not want to participate are permitted to remain silent or leave the classroom. In fact, even “non-denominational” prayers are banned, because the First Amendment prohibits both the endorsement of one religion over another, as well as the endorsement of religion over non-religion.
Students can study religion for its influence on history, literature, and culture, but school curricula cannot be used to teach that one religion is better than another one or to insult any religion. Additionally, school officials may not preach their beliefs to students, and schools cannot design curricula to promote some religious views over others.
With respect to the holiday season, the guiding principle is that government must be neutral between religions as well as between religion and no religion. Accordingly, an attempt to include all religions in school celebrations is not adequate since many students either do not have any religious beliefs, or follow faiths that do not have a “holiday” season. Of course, schools can celebrate holidays by putting up decorations and displays, but they must be careful not to promote religion in particular. Some, but not all, holiday symbols have religious meaning. If a display is mostly non-religious with some religious items, it is probably okay. But if the overall message is religious, it is unconstitutional. For example, a nativity scene by itself would probably not be permitted, but a display including several items, like a Christmas tree, a Menorah and snowflakes would probably be okay.
FREEDOM of the PRESS
Students do not need permission to bring written materials, including leaflets, newspapers or announcements, into the school building. However, in order to hand them out, students must follow the school’s rules regarding distributing materials, and any restrictions the school creates must apply equally to all non-school student literature. Generally, school rules that allow leafleting in hallways, but not in class, are considered reasonable, and schools may require someone to hand out leaflets instead of leaving them in big piles for people to pick up – which could create a mess.
In 2017, the RI State Legislature passed a law – the Student Journalists’ Freedom of Expression Act – that promotes a free and responsible student press in schools. The law reversed an unfortunate 1988 Supreme Court decision (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier) that gave school officials wide discretion to censor “school sponsored” student newspapers. The Hazelwood decision had a chilling effect on student journalism across the country. The 2017 law reversed this effect by ensuring that school officials who sponsor student papers won’t be held liable if students choose to write about topics that are unpopular or controversial (of course, some types of speech – such as libelous or obscene speech – remain prohibited in school and other settings.) Importantly, the legislation acknowledged that censorship hinders academic freedom and learning and that student journalists are responsible people who deserve to be free from unnecessary censorship.
In the case of non-school-sponsored publications, the school has much less control. Material in such publications can be censored only if it meets a clearly stated definition of libel or obscenity, or if it will cause a substantial disruption. Students may distribute underground newspapers on school grounds before and after school and between classes, subject to reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner of distribution. Moreover, school authorities do not have the right to review the contents of underground publications before distribution. Any school policies that regulate the content of underground papers cannot be vague or overbroad. For example, a policy forbidding distribution of material that “encourages actions which endanger the health and safety of students” was found to be too vague. Students also have the right to appeal a censorship decision within set time limits.
FREE SPEECH and EXPRESSION
Public school students have a right to free speech. This means that they are generally free to speak their minds and express their ideas, even if school officials and/or other students find their ideas controversial or otherwise don’t like them. Criticism of the school or its teachers or the discussion of politics, for example, are generally protected – both inside and outside of school.
FREE SPEECH AT SCHOOL
Student speech that occurs at school, on a school bus, or at a school event is “at school.” Speech that is intentionally directed at a school, such as an email from a student’s home computer to a school official’s email account, may also be considered “at school.” A landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), established that students have the right to free speech at school unless their speech would cause a “material and substantial disruption” to class or school activities, or would infringe on the rights of others. Speech does not create a material and substantial disruption just because it draws attention, makes people angry, is controversial, or a school official doesn’t like it. In the Tinker case, three public school students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The Court found that these students could not be disciplined for peacefully expressing an idea, because their behavior – wearing armbands in symbolic protest - did not disrupt educational activity or interfere with the rights of others. That said, school officials are allowed to impose reasonable restrictions on when, where and how free speech activities can take place in order to prevent disruption of educational activities.
FREE SPEECH OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL
School officials are limited in their ability to punish students for ideas expressed on the student’s own time and outside of school, and they may sanction a student for off-campus speech only if they can make a strong case that it will cause a material and substantial disruption on school grounds, to school activity.
OATHS AND PLEDGES
Students cannot be forced to take oaths as a condition of attendance or participation in school-sponsored activities – including sports teams. This means that schools cannot punish students for refusing to salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or stand during the National Anthem. Furthermore, students do not have to give officials a reason for not participating, and they do not need a parent’s permission to exercise this right.
DEFAMATION, THREATS OR INCITING VIOLENCE
The right to free speech – by students, and private individuals more generally – does have some limitations. Historically, freedom of speech has not included speech that directly advocates others to commit violence nor has it included threats intended to cause someone to legitimately fear for their safety. Defamation – spoken or written falsehoods about someone that causes them actual harm – and obscenity are other areas where speech has historically been limited. What this means is that students may not encourage others to commit acts of violence.
VULGAR OR DRUG-RELATED SPEECH
To ensure an educational environment that is civil and law-abiding, schools are allowed to limit students’ use of vulgar or lewd speech on campus. In 1986, a high school student in Washington state was suspended for using sexual innuendo in a speech at a school assembly. The case, called Bethel School District v. Fraser, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court said that schools may discipline students for speech that is not obscene but is still vulgar or lewd and used in an inappropriate school setting. In a case called Morse v. Frederick, a student in Alaska was suspended for holding up a banner at a school-sponsored event that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The U.S. Supreme Court said that the school could limit the student’s speech because it advocated illegal drug use and did not include any serious comment on social or political issues.
The right to freedom of expression includes the right to access ideas and information. The basis for this is that information is critical to the free expression of ideas. This means there are some limits on what schools can censor. This applies to the books that a school library makes available and to the Internet filtering software that schools use.
CENSORSHIP OF LIBRARY BOOKS
In Board of Education v. Pico (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court said that a school couldn’t remove books from the library because it disagreed with the ideas expressed in them. However, the Court would allow schools to remove books that are “pervasively vulgar” or not “educationally suitable.”
CENSORSHIP OF CURRICULA
As for classroom texts and curricula materials, the school’s authority is very broad. However, RI law does prohibit discrimination in classroom or school practices, including things like stereotyping in textbooks and other course material.
School computers are usually equipped with filtering software that prevents students from accessing content that officials consider inappropriate for a school setting. Unfortunately, these filters often filter out too much - like sites that provide information about sexual health or sexual identity. Although no court has decided whether a school can censor web pages on the Internet, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Internet is a participatory form of mass speech and is entitled to protection from governmental intrusion. Although this decision was not framed in the context of schools, it strongly suggests that the Internet deserves at least as much protection from censorship as a school library.
Q&A: SCHOOL, THE INTERNET AND LIMITS TO FREE SPEECH
CAN I GET IN TROUBLE FOR SOMETHING I TEXT, EMAIL OR POST ONLINE WHILE I AM IN SCHOOL?
As a public school student, you have a constitutional right to free speech. You have the right to express your opinions and beliefs, even if they are controversial, as long as you do so in a way that doesn’t disrupt class or other school-related activities. However, most schools have Internet usage and cell phone policies governing the school day. If you are using a school computer or email account, school officials can monitor your activity. Any online activity using school computers, Internet access, or email accounts that violates school policies, creates a disruptive learning environment, or violates others’ rights could result in disciplinary action. Also, schools generally prohibits students from accessing social networking sites while at school, and many also have rules limiting the use of cell phones during the school day.
CAN I GET IN TROUBLE FOR “SEXTING”?
It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 in Rhode Island to engage in “sexting”. That term is defined in Rhode Island law as the transmission, via cell phone or similar devices, of certain nude images of yourself – specifically, graphic photos of your genitals or pubic area. If the act of sexting causes a disruption to your school’s learning environment, the school can discipline you. Rhode Island law states that sexting constitutes a status offense – which means you can be sent to family court to face a judge, but you will not face criminal penalties such as a prison sentence. However, because of the way the law was written, it technically allows minors who engage in sexting to be charged with child pornography instead. The ACLU believes such a charge could be legally challenged.
WHAT ARE THE LAWS REGARDING CYBERBULLYING?
Bullying is a very serious problem. No student has the right to say things, online or elsewhere, that put you in reasonable fear of harm to yourself, your siblings or even your belongings. However, the ACLU believes that the state law governing bullying is so broadly worded that it could unfairly be used to punish a student’s right to free speech. That is because Rhode Island law defines bullying (and cyberbullying) to include any communication by a student that, among other things, causes another student “emotional harm,” even if there was no intent to cause harm. The law allows schools to punish students for “bullying” that happens both inside and outside of school, and even encourages police intervention in many cases. So if you use technology, including social media, to threaten or spread lies about other students or teachers, you could face discipline under your school’s anti-bullying policy. In some instances, however, punishment for cyber bullying may violate your constitutional rights.
Q&A: DRESS CODES
CAN I WEAR CLOTHING THAT COMMUNICATES A POLITICAL OR RELIGIOUS MESSAGE?
Yes. In the case of Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students had a constitutional right to wear a black armband to school to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Since then, courts have continued to hold that students have a right to express political views through their clothing. This can include, for example, wearing clothing that endorses or criticizes a politician or, as in more recent cases, wearing t-shirts supporting or opposing gay rights. Additionally, schools cannot prohibit students from wearing clothes that are in observance of their religion, such as a Muslim wearing a hijab in school.
CAN MY SCHOOL RESTRICT CERTAIN MESSAGES ON MY T-SHIRT?
As a general rule, schools cannot prohibit you from wearing clothing simply because they disapprove of the message that the clothing conveys. However, schools can bar you from wearing clothing with “indecent” or other messages that may cause an actual disruption to school activities.
CAN MY SCHOOL REGULATE WHAT ELSE I WEAR?
There is no simple answer. In Gardner v. Cumberland School Committee (1972), the RI Commissioner of Education held that school districts are limited to regulating the dress of pupils to situations where “it presents a clear and present danger to the student’s health and safety, causes an interference with school work, or creates a classroom or school disorder.” In that case, the Commissioner overturned a school policy that barred a student from wearing a maxi-coat to school. But for policies that are seemingly less arbitrary — such as bans on all hats, showing your undergarments or similar restrictions, courts have been more inclined to defer to a school’s determination whether the clothing is disruptive or interferes with school activity. However, as mentioned above, if there is a social, political or religious message associated with what you are wearing, the courts will be more sympathetic. For example, in Pennsylvania, the ACLU won a lawsuit against a school policy that banned students from wearing breast cancer awareness bracelets that said “I <3 boobies.”
CAN MY SCHOOL BAN "GANG-RELATED APPAREL?"
A school can probably ban particular types of clothing that are directly associated with gang activity if they can document that the apparel would cause substantial disruption or jeopardize safety. However, any school policy on this issue would have to be clearly drafted, and specific as to what was not allowed.
CAN MY SCHOOL PUNISH ME IF I DYE MY HAIR OR HAVE BODY PIERCINGS?
In the 1970’s, a federal court in Rhode Island ruled in favor of a student who was suspended for violating a school rule banning long hair on boys; one could argue that the same rights apply to students who dye their hair. The ACLU believes that if schools punish students for their hairstyles or body piercings, the school should have to show that the piercings or hair were disruptive or caused a valid health or safety risk.
CAN MY SCHOOL REQUIRE ME TO WEAR A UNIFORM?
There is no direct case on this issue in Rhode Island, but the ACLU believes that forcing students to wear uniforms infringes on their right to free speech and expression and violates the Gardner decision mentioned above. That said, a number of Rhode Island schools have promoted voluntary student uniform policies.
CAN I BE PUNISHED FOR PROTESTING MY SCHOOL'S DRESS CODE POLICY?
You have the right to peacefully protest a dress code policy, but that does not mean you can violate the policy or engage in other behavior that is against school rules.
FREEDOM of ASSEMBLY
PROTESTS AND DEMOSTRATIONS
Students have the right to assemble and express themselves in groups – via marches, protests or other forms of peaceful demonstration. As long as school activities are not disrupted or obstructed, demonstrations should be allowed, and participants should not be subject to discipline. Because of the possibility that in-school protests can be disruptive, the courts have restricted student demonstrations on school property - particularly if they occur during school hours or in a school building. As a result, schools may have reasonable rules regulating the time, place and manner of group demonstrations.
Keep in mind that if you encourage students to miss class, block a hallway, or make a lot of noise while others are studying, it will likely be considered a disruption. But you should be able to organize a peaceful, orderly protest at lunch, or before or after school.
STUDENT GROUPS AND CLUBS
In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which made it unlawful for schools to bar certain student-run groups - including religious ones - from meeting after school if school facilities are available to other student-run groups. This means that students can form a religious club or gay-straight alliance and are free to meet at school during non-instructional time if the school allows other types of clubs to meet on campus.
Q&A: STUDENT WALKOUTS
CAN I BE DISCIPLINED FOR PARTICIPATING IN A WALKOUT?
Because the law requires you to attend school, the administration can take corrective action against you for missing school, even if you miss school to participate in a political protest. However, the school cannot punish you for missing school to participate in political protest more harshly than it punishes students for missing school for any other purpose. For example, you might have to serve detention for missing school to attend a protest if detention is the typical punishment for unexcused absences. You also should be given the same right to make up work as any other student who has an unexcused absence for the particular classes you miss.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF SCHOOL OFFICIALS THREATEN TO BLOCK SCHOOL EXITS TO PREVENT A WALKOUT?
Blocking or locking exits to the school can pose serious health and safety concerns for students and staff. If the school administration threatens to lock students in your school to prevent walkouts, students should immediately notify their parents and the district superintendent’s office.
FREEDOM TO PETITION
Broadly speaking, the “right to petition” means that people have the right to ask the government to change things that they don’t like – and do so without fear of punishment. In practice, this means that people have the right to sue the government if it does something that we think is wrong – and lobby the government to pass laws that we believe in.
Importantly, the right to petition makes it possible for us to protect our other rights, and seek changes when our rights have been violated. Without this right, the cases highlighted in this pamphlet may not have been possible.
The right to petition also allows the ACLU of RI to go before the Rhode Island General Assembly, our State’s government forum, and provide evidence and arguments to support the passage of laws that protect us – like the Open Meetings Act and the law requiring school districts to have policies about Internet filtering.