First Amendment and the Student Press

First Amendment Rights and Responsibilities

First Amendment:

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. 

Important Cases

  1. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

Three students wanted to wear black armbands with peace symbols to protest the Vietnam War. The students wore them to school and they were suspended. ACLU helped them sue.

Supreme Court agreed…students “…do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate.” Black armbands did not cause a disruption and was protected form of speech. Written speech, spoken speech and speech related actions are called “expression.”

  1. Bethel v. Fraser (1983)

Matthew Fraser gave a speech for a friend for Student Council in front of the entire student body. The speech contained sexual innuendo, but no obscenity. He was suspended and not allowed to speak at graduation.

This went to Supreme Court, which found in favor of the school’s decision to suspend speaking rights. Justice Burger concluded the First Amendment did not prohibit schools from prohibiting vulgar and lewd speech since such discourse was inconsistent with the “fundamental values of public school education.”


  • Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988)

A Hazelwood, Missouri principal reviewed the newspaper and cut two stories. The first story was about three pregnant students who were described with assumed names, but could be identified. There were references to sexual activity that were deemed inappropriate for younger students. The second story about divorce violated the principle of fairness because a student criticized her father, who was given no opportunity to defend himself or reply.

In this decision, the Supreme Court listed a number of examples for which a school newspaper might be censored. All were based on the opinion that schools need not tolerate student expression that is “inconsistent with its basic educational mission.” The Supreme Court listed standards a school newspaper must meet in order not to be censored:

A school publication should be:

  1. grammatical
  2. well-written
  3. adequately researched
  4. not be vulgar or profane
  5. not be biased or prejudiced
  6. suitable for immature audiences
  7. an advocate of conduct consistent with shared values of a civilized social order and the basic educational mission
  8. set high standards, conceivably higher than those set by professional journalists

Professional publications and school newspapers can be sued for:

  1. Libel: any false statement, published or broadcast, that results in a person’s being hated, shunned, or avoided, or suffering financial loss
  2. Obscenity: articles or language considered filthy and offensive as judged by community standards regarding sexual conduct
  3. Articles causing “disruption of school activities,” including rioting, unlawful seizures or destruction of property, student boycott, sit-in, walkout or other similar activities.\
  4. Invasion of Privacy: may not intrude on a person’s private life nor expose it to the public for comment, criticism or ridicule 

Anonymous sources: Although many reporters use anonymous sources, there are rules about when to use them. A reporter has to determine the information’s value and whether is it possible to get it any other way. She also has to determine whether she needs to protect the source from harm from being an identified source. A comment about the cafeteria’s food should not be permitted to remain anonymous, for example, but a revelation about suffering child abuse may be. 1/18/2012

“Seven Ethical Dilemmas Students Face”

The Liberty Bell Staff follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, contained in the Staff Manual, and uses the Potter Box Method of ethical decision-making in conjunction with an Editorial Board process.

Five Laws Poynter University

Five cases have created laws that specifically apply to the student press. Student journalists should keep these laws in mind as they’re dealing with school administrators. Refer back to “Evolution of Freedom” for descriptions of the cases that led to these five verdicts:

Tinker vs. Des Moines (1969): Administrators can censor student speech if they have a reasonable forecast of material or disruption that invades the rights of others.

Bethel vs. Fraser (1986): Administrators can discipline a student for vulgar, lewd or offensive speech.
Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier (1988): Administrators can censor content in student media if they can show a valid educational purpose for doing so. They cannot censor just because they dislike or disapprove of the message.

Dean vs. Utica (2004): Administrators must allow students to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities. This federal district court case applies directly to that circuit, although others may use it to argue their district.

Morse vs. Frederick (also known as the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case) (2007): Administrators can censor student speech when that speech is viewed as promoting illegal drug use.


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