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The student journalists sued, citing the Tinker standard (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988).
The issue in this case, while similar to those of Tinker and Fraser, differed in that the question was not about "obviously inappropriate" language, or about viewpoint discrimination. Instead, the issue was whether a school official had the right to censor school-sponsored publications if they believe the material is inappropriate for some students, or that the material will disrupt the school atmosphere. Rather than being a question of power over dissent, the issue was over pedagogical concerns (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988).
In a 5-3 vote, the Court ruled that the school did have a right to censor school-sponsored publications when their reasoning was based on legitimate concerns about the educational atmosphere. In their decision, the Court noted the difference between private student speech and student speech that is sponsored by the school. Since the school-sponsored activities are representative of the school at large, and not just the student, the Court believed that the school officials had more of a right to edit the content (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988).
As of the Kuhlmeier decision, the courts in the United States had three categories of student speech rules to assist in determining First Amendment rights violations. The Tinker decision gave precedence in cases where the issue is about political viewpoints, and that precedence determined that such dissenting views cannot be censored, unless the school can show that allowing such beliefs to be expressed will cause disruption. The Bethel decision showed that lewd, obscene, or other offensive language is not protected under the First Amendment. Finally, the Kuhlmeier decision showed that while student expression of dissenting ideas is not to be regulated under normal circumstances, those expressed during school- sponsored activities can be monitored and censored by the school, in the event of legitimate educational concerns.
Hundreds of Circuit court and lower court cases have been decided based on the precedence set forth by these three landmark decisions.
Some of these cases were based solely on precedence, such as Pyle v. School Committee of South Hadley (1996). In Pyle, two public school students wore t-shirts with the phrase "Co-ed naked..." And were told by school officials that they could not wear the shirts. The students sued under the precedence set forth in Tinker and Bethel. They argued that the shirts could not be considered vulgar, and did not cause a disruption to the educational environment. In a unanimous decision, the Massachusetts lower courts ruled that the laws protected the students' rights to engage in non-school sponsored expression, so long as it was not vulgar or disruptive, as stated by the Tinker, Bethel, and Kuhlmeier decisions (Pyle v. School Committee of South Hadley, 1996).
Another such case was that of West v. Derby Unified School District No. 260. In this case, a middle school student drew a picture of a confederate flag in his math class. The student was suspended for violating its racial harassment policy, which stated, "students shall not at school, on school property or at school activates wear or have in their possession any written material that is racially divisive or creates ill-will or hatred." The student sued for violation of his First Amendment rights (West v. Derby Unified School District No. 260, 2000).
Citing Tinker, a 10th Circuit panel held that school officials had a reason to censor the student's actions, and punish him for violations. In the panel's decision, they pointed out that the student's behavior, if discovered, could have caused a substantial disruption, thus allowing for censorship under Tinker. Additionally, the drawing of the Confederate flag certainly collided with the rights of other students, again allowing for censorship under the Tinker decision (West v. Derby Unified School District No. 260, 2000).
In other cases, however, the issue of balancing the rights of students and the safety and control of the educational environment is not so readily categorized. While the Tinker, Bethel, and Kuhlmeier decisions certainly assist schools and courts in setting guidelines for First Amendment issues, there are special circumstances that require more thought and analysis. This is particularly true in school systems whose rate of in-class violence is already at a high level.
In the New Jersey 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, in Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education (2003), the Court pointed out that, in some cases, the history of the school district in question could weigh in on the decision to censor a student's free speech. In the Sypniewski case, the student, Thomas Sypniewski, wore a shirt to school with Jeff Foxworthy humor on it, which contained the word "Redneck." He was suspended for violating the school's anti-racism policy. The relevant portion of the policy read "...students shall not at school, on school property, or at school activities wear or have in their possession any written material, either printed or in their own handwriting, that is racially divisive or creates ill will or hatred" (Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education, 2003).
As the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court pointed out, the Warren Hills school district was a problem district in terms of racism. Between 1999 and 2001, the school district dealt with severe examples of racial hostility, including a Halloween costume of a white youth dressed as a black slave with a noose tied around his neck, constant wearing of clothing bearing the Confederate flag, the formation of a racist group called "The Hicks," the observance by white students of "White Power Wednesdays," and the handing out of Ku Klux Clan and Black Power paraphernalia. In addition, increasing physical violence between white and black students had occurred, including harassment outside of school grounds, and physical fistfights within the school zone (Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education, 2003).
According to the school officials, the term "Redneck" could, in all likelihood, be related to the "Hicks" gang within their district. In addition, they believed the shirt, in light of their already existing race issues, could cause a great disruption, possibly escalating to violence. In order to protect other students and to establish control over the gang and race situation, they banned the shirt. The student believed his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated (Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education, 2003).
The Court had two issues to determine. First, they had to decide whether the shirt is question would cause disruption, or violate the rights of others, as expressed by the Tinker decision. The Court had determined that since the shirt was not lewd, nor part of a school-sponsored activity, the Bethel and Hazelwood standards did not apply. In the ruling, Judge Scirica noted that previous cases have upheld bans against displays of Confederate flags when the school has a history of racial issues. However, according to the court, the shirt in question did not constitute a racist message, nor had it caused disruption on the occasions the shirt had been worn. Thus, the Court ruled 2-1 that the banning of the shirt violated the student's right to free speech (Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education, 2003).
However, in their decision on the anti-harassment policy in general, the Court ruled that, if the school district took out the words "ill-will," the policy was, in fact, Constitutional. Judge Scirica explained that the school board had properly adopted the policy to contend with racial problems in their district that had already caused problems. Judge Scirica stated that the policy was permissible "...in the context of Warren Hills school district and its recent unpleasant history. This reliance on the background turmoil at a particular place at a particular time means that the policy would likely be unconstitutional in another school district or even in Warren Hills at a different time." (Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education, 2003).
This decision and resulting opinion of the Judges shows the vast difficulty in balancing First Amendment rights with the rights of others, and with maintaining a controlled environment in any school district. The statement of Judge Scirica shows that, even within the context of other, higher court decisions, there are more issues at hand than the Fist Amendment right of students. Racial tensions in the school districts, possible links of certain symbols with area gangs, and the safety of other students all must weigh in when setting up policies for maintaining student's First Amendment rights.
Perhaps the case that most clearly displays the difficulty in balancing free speech with control over a school area is Fleming v. Jefferson County School Dist. R-1, heard in both the U.S. District Court and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado. In response to the Columbine shootings of 1999, where 13 people were killed and 26 others were injured, Columbine…[continue]
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