The First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech and expression to all, including young people. It also prohibits the government (including government-supported public schools) from promoting any particular religion or religious belief—what is known as separation of church and state.
Student Freedom of Speech
Do I have a right to freedom of speech while I am in school?
Yes. Your freedom of speech and expression are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. You do not give up your constitutional rights when you walk through the school door.
Of course, you don’t have the right to say and do everything. In fact, there’s a famous legal opinion that states that free speech does not mean you can falsely shout fire in a crowded theatre, and the same rule applies to students.
Can the school limit what I say, write, create, and do?
Yes. Even with the First Amendment, a public school can adopt "reasonable rules" that regulate the "time, place and manner" of your exercising these free speech rights and sometimes the content. (Private schools don't have to follow as many laws ensuring free speech.)
So even if your principal or teachers believe that an article or leaflet is in "bad taste," or is controversial, divisive, or expresses a political point of view that is against school policy, they still cannot censor what you say or write, with some exceptions.
If a teacher or school official is trying to limit your freedom of speech or expression, show them this book. Ask them to explain how what you are saying or doing violates school policies.
How much can the school censor our school paper or magazine or website?
To some extent. Even with the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, the Iowa Code—the book of laws for the state—specifies that students working on student publications have the right of free speech, it also says they can’t publish materials that are:
- Libelous or slanderous
- Would encourage students to commit unlawful acts, violate student regulations, or cause considerable disruption at the school
Iowa students have it easier than students in most other states. In those other states, school principals can decide to kill a story or other item in a student publication. In Iowa, it's the publication advisor, rather than the principal, who legally makes the decision to edit or kill a story (but only for the reasons above). It's an effort to put the decision in the hands of someone who has a background in the importance of free speech.
What can we do if the school does try to censor us?
Each school board is required to have a written policy on student publications. First, ask to see that policy and review it.
Discuss calmly with the school official who is objecting to the item why you think it's important to publish. If possible, involve the English or journalism teacher to advocate for your side.
If this doesn't work, consider other ideas for student advocacy, like these.
Can they ban our speech or publication just because it criticizes school officials or the school?
No. Criticism of school officials and school policies is clearly free speech as long as it complies with school policy.
Can a school stop me from voicing my opinions on a website? Social media? Email? Texting?
Generally speaking, school officials do not have the right to punish students for material on websites created outside of school on equipment that does not belong to the school or is not kept on school property.
However, sometimes school officials will claim that what you say on your own website or in a blog or whatever is "related to school attendance"—in other words, that it has an impact on what happens at school.
There is no clear law on this, although generally, courts have supported the rights of students to voice opinions on websites outside of school.
Be aware that school officials may try to punish you for what you say on the website if you talk about it at school or pull it up on a computer at school.
Can my school stop speech that it says is “harassment”?
Students definitely have a right to voice even offensive opinions, but the school also has a duty to step in when students use words as a weapon against each other. That could be bullying or harassment.
You can't intentionally intimidate or demean someone in school on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or religion in a way that would make that person afraid for his physical well-being, have a substantial effect on mental health, interfere with studies, or interfere with that person’s ability to fully participate in school activities.