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Public school students are protected by the First Amendment and do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. Nonetheless, the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings, and must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. Student speech may be curtailed if the speech will materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school. School authorities may suppress student speech to prevent material disruption in the schools, when they have more than an undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance and can show that their action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.
In response to an in-class assignment, B.C. submitted a drawing that depicted an astronaut and expressed a desire to blow up the school with the teachers in it. Prior to the drawing, the B.C. had been disciplined by teachers and school administrators for misbehavior in and around school. The school decided to suspend B.C. for six days. Plaintiff, B.C.’s parents, filed suit alleging that by suspending B.C., the school district violated B.C.’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants imposed an excessive punishment in disciplining B.C. as a result of the astronaut drawing. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment to defendants, dismissing the complaint. Plaintiffs appealed.
Was the penalty of suspension violative of the student’s First Amendment rights, and an excessive punishment in disciplining the student?
The Court held that the student’s suspension had to be upheld. The record demonstrated that it was reasonably foreseeable that the astronaut drawing could have created a substantial disruption at the school. When the student was suspended, he had a history of disciplinary issues, and his other earlier drawings and writings had also embraced violence. Prior to the astronaut drawing incident, the assistant principal discussed the student's other drawings and writings with the principal, expressing a "concern" for the student, and school psychologist testified that she had spoken with the principal about the student's disciplinary issues and prior drawings. In addition, the astronaut drawing was seen by other students in the class, and caused another student, who observed the child with the drawing, to leave her seat and bring it to the teacher's attention. Whether the student intended his "wish" as a joke or never intended to carry out the threat was irrelevant.