Students' free speech rights sometimes clash with schools' interest in maintaining control of public education. Students' First Amendment liberties were affirmed by the landmark TINKER V. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969), which ruled that public school students could not be penalized for wearing symbols, such as black armbands, to protest the VIETNAM WAR.
Two subsequent cases dealing with issues of censorship in school newspapers pointed to a more restrictive judicial view of students' right to free expression. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 108 S. Ct. 562, 98 L. Ed. 2d 592 (1988), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Hazelwood, Missouri, school principal who removed several articles from a student newspaper. The articles dealt with teen pregnancy and a student's feelings about her parents' DIVORCE. The court in Hazelwood held that a school newspaper is not a public forum, and thus granted school officials the right to determine what type of student speech is appropriate and to regulate such speech.
Three years later, the ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Clark County School District, 941 F.2d 817 (9th Cir. 1991), was based on Hazelwood. In Planned Parenthood, a public high school newspaper solicited advertisements from local businesses, including Planned Parenthood. The principal refused to allow Planned Parenthood to place an advertisement in school publications and Planned Parenthood sued the school district. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision that a public high school publication is not a public forum and that the school could therefore accept or reject advertisements. Both Hazelwood and Planned Parenthood concluded that because public high schools are nonpublic forums, school districts can apply a limited degree of censorship.
Hundreds of public universities in the United States have speech codes to regulate students' choice of words. Speech can be constitutionally curtailed in some circumstances. For example, public COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES can forbid threats of violence, prohibit obscene language and conduct (although it is extremely difficult to define or prove obscenity), and punish students for using defamatory speech against each other, all without violating the First Amendment. Numerous cases have successfully contested free speech limitations on campus, suggesting that a majority of these codes are unconstitutional.
In Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852 (E.D. Mich. 1989), a biopsychology student maintained that the university's speech code prevented him from freely discussing controversial ideas about biologically based differences between the sexes and races. A district court ruled that the university's code proscribed too great a range of speech and therefore was an unconstitutional infringement on the plaintiff's First Amendment rights. The court also held that the overbroad nature of the code denied his due process rights.
A University of Wisconsin student was accused of violating the university's speech codes by yelling rude comments at a woman. In U.W.M. Post, Inc. v. Board of Regents, 774 F. Supp. 1163 (E.D. Wis. 1991), the university's speech code was also struck down as overbroad. Two years later school officials punished fraternity brothers at GEORGE MASON University for dressing in drag and staging an "ugly woman contest." In Iota X Chapter v. George Mason University, 993 F.2d 386 (1993), the Fourth Circuit found that the university had violated the First Amendment because it did not sanction the fraternity merely for its conduct, but rather for the message conveyed by the "ugly woman contest," which ran counter to the views the university sought to foster.
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