A High School Student’s Guide to Free Speech

Free Student Press outreach pamphlet

By Damon Krane
Circa 2001/2002

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Do students have the right to free speech at school?

YES!!! The First Amendment of the US Constitution exists to protect you from having your opinions silenced by the state or federal governments, and the state governments are in charge of public schools. BUT… try voicing an opinion critical of how your school is run or how your teachers teach, and you’ll probably end up in detention. Try writing your opinions in the school newspaper, and you’ll find your writing can be legally censored if school officials feel it’s “inappropriate.” (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1988)

Wait – So where are my free speech rights at school??

Well, they used to be all over the place. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that public school officials could censor student expression only if they could show that censorship was necessary to prevent a very serious disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others. This requirement is called the Tinker Standard, named after the case it came from: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969.

In practice, the Tinker Standard says that unless you’re passing out a leaflet announcing a walk-out, saying something that probably is going to incite a riot, or blocking hallways while passing out literature, there isn’t much school officials legally can do to stop you from expressing your opinions at school. Until 1988, the Tinker Standard applied to all student speech occurring on school grounds. Everything from official school newspapers to underground zines was protected from censorship.

Then in 1988, the hair band Winger released its first album. As if that wasn’t bad enough, 1988 also was the year the Supreme Court decided Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. This decision dramatically reduced the forms of student expression protected by the Tinker Standard. Since Hazelwood, school officials have been allowed to censor student speech within school-sponsored productions (official newspapers, school plays, art exhibits, etc.), even if that speech could not cause a serious disruption. So now, unless you live in one of the few states to pass laws providing students with stronger free speech protection (Ohio isn’t one of them), or unless your school has always let students control the content of your school paper… then YOU HAVE ONLY ONE PLACE LEFT to speak your mind at school whether or not school officials like what you’re saying. That one place is within…

Independent Student Publications!!

Sometimes called “underground newspapers” or zines, independent student publications are created by students, off school grounds, and without using school supplies or other resources. Unlike school-sponsored papers, independent student publications are still protected by the Tinker Standard! That means school officials can’t control what you write or stop you from passing your paper out at school, as long as doing so would not cause a serious disruption.

Just like a professional journalist, you still can get sued if you print lies that harm someone’s reputation. On the other hand, you can have more freedom than most professional journalists because, unlike them, you can be your own boss. You and your fellow student publishers can organize your publication to work however you want — It’s your paper!

Why didn’t I learn this at school??

US public schools have been modeled after factories, where students are treated like empty containers to be filled up with pre-measured amounts of information at each stop along the K-12 assembly line. But at every point on that assembly line one lesson stays the same: being “good’ means doing what you are told, whether you agree with it or not. As the factory school’s product, your job is to shut up, do as you’re told, and be a good little container.

School exists to prepare you for the future. Question is, what kind of future? You go to school every weekday for 7 hours and have virtually no say in the decisions that affect your life for the 12 years you’re there and the future it leads you to. Is living under a dictatorship preparing you to be an active participant in a democratic society? Is having no say in your education preparing you to decide what kind of meaningful work you would like to do? Or… is school leaving you well-trained for a future of following other peoples’ orders and accepting the world around you as unchangeable?

What kind of future do you want?

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But what can I do?

Don’t let us give you the wrong idea. Even when the law provided students rights with more protections, that didn’t mean most students knew about it. Who were they going to learn it from, their principals? Even when students’ legal rights were at their strongest, a 1974 study found that censorship was commonplace at schools across the country.

History has shown that the best protection students have is each other, along with the support of parents and community members. After all, the Tinker Standard would never have been established in the first place if students and parents hadn’t fought their school all the way to the Supreme Court. Nelsonville-York administrators recently tried to ban the student paper Lockdown but had to back down when students stuck together and won the support of their community.

The truth is, you have a lot of power to change the way schools are run. It all starts with speaking out and making your ideas known- and you can do just that through independent student publications!

No matter what you write about, it is worth writing because your opinion matters. Maybe you write poetry, comic strips- or you don’t write at all, but you’re into photography or drawing. However you choose to express yourself, one thing remains the same…

lf you can do it on paper, you can do it in an independent student publication!

Free Student Press is here to help.

Free Student Press was founded by young people who created their own independent publications when they were in high school. As high school students, we didn’t know if we had any legal press rights, and we sure didn’t know where to go to find out. We created Free Student Press to provide students like you with information about your press rights and basic journalism law, and to support you in your struggles to make your voices heard at school.

We DO NOT tell students what to write, what to think, or what to care about. You get more than enough of that at school. We are up-front about the things we think are wrong with school (as you’ve probably noticed), but you really don’t need to agree with any of that. You only need to think that your opinion is worth being heard, and we’ll be there to help. Contact us to find out how!

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