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7 Things You Should Know About Free Speech in Schools

Episode 1 of Free Speech Rules, a new video series by UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh

Watch the first episode of Free Speech Rules, a new video series on free speech and the law that's written by Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA, and the co-founder of the Volokh Conspiracy, which is hosted at Reason.com.

The first episode looks at the seven things you should know about how the First Amendment is applied in schools:

1) Political and religious speech is mostly protected.
Students, from first grade to twelfth, can't be punished based on their political or religious speech. As the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District: "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates."

2) Disruptive speech is not protected.
Schools can punish speech that "materially disrupts schoolwork"—for instance, because it prompts fights.

3) Vulgar or sexual speech is not protected.
Schools can also punish students for using vulgarities or sexual innuendos.

4) Praising drugs is not protected.
Schools can punish speech that seems to praise drug use, and probably also alcohol use and other crimes, at least when the speech doesn't seem political.

5) Official school newspapers are the school's own speech.
Courts see the newspaper as the school's own speech, even if students are the ones who write it.

6) This only applies to public schools.
Under the so-called "state action doctrine," the First Amendment doesn't limit private schools, even those that get tax breaks or government funds.

7) California is different.
Some states, like California, have passed laws that provide more protection to students.

Written by Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment law professor at UCLA.
Produced and edited by Austin Bragg, who is not.

This is not legal advice.
If this were legal advice, it would be followed by a bill.
Please use responsibly.


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  • Eddy||

    "Free Speech Rules" is what they went for as the title of their series?

    What happened to my suggestion, Parrhesia made easier"?

  • Rob Misek||

    Only political and religious speech is protected but not in private schools.

    That's the limits of freedom. We're living the dream.

  • Vernon Depner||

    School uniforms solve most of these issues.

  • Eddy||

    Yes, but the documentaries I've seen show that uniforms don't protect schoolchildren from space aliens, monsters, sorcerers, etc.

  • Vernon Depner||

    Those are just design issues.

  • newshutz||

    Especially, when the schoolchildren are space aliens.

  • John R. Ellis||

    "I'm Eugene Volokh and I approve this message."

    Is this intended as a gently ironic ending (my initial assumption), or is there in fact some legal reason based on obscure election law for including it? (It's obviously a sad commentary on election law that an informed reader has to ask.)

  • Eddy||

    Stand by Your Ad

    https://bit.ly/1HyHX7t

  • Social Justice is neither||

    So that's the reason political or religious speech is called disruptive if the administration doesn't like it.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Free speech should never tolerated in our beloved Gulag state, much in less in our indoctrination centers and re-education camps.
    Free speech only causes doubt, mistrust and counter-revolutionary thoughts.
    Ask any progressive.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "The rights of children in our State labor/indoctrination camps"

  • Spookk||

    A main sticking point is #2. Schools will define that baby to the nines, and not allow you to make comments that upset vulnerable groups (such as law enforcement wannabes in a criminal justice course), upon pain of administrative retribution.

  • loki||

    Free speech rule#1 - it doesn't exist.

    Key word being "rule".

  • Duke of url||

    Dang, my copy of the Constitution doesn't have any of the above listed 'exceptions'.
    It's almost as if my Constitution was made in China or something.

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