United States Supreme Court cases make clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. At the same time, the Supreme Court has held that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings and that the rights of students must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. Consistent with these principles, the Supreme Court holds that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use.
The student was suspended from school after he refused the principal's direction to take down a banner that he unfurled at a school-sponsored and school-supervised event. The principal directed the student to take the banner down because the banner appeared to advocate illegal drug use in violation of school policy. The school board upheld the student's suspension. At trial, the district court's ruled that petitioners were entitled to qualified immunity in respondent student's 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 action holding that there was a violation of his free speech rights under the First Amendment. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit also found a First Amendment violation because the school officials punished the student without demonstrating that his speech gave rise to a risk of substantial disruption.
Was there a First Amendment violation?
The Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and it remanded the action for further proceedings. The Court held that the school officials did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending the student. The Court concluded that the "substantial disruption" rule of Tinker was not the only basis for restricting student speech. Considering the special characteristics of the school environment and the governmental interest in stopping student drug abuse, the Court held that schools were entitled to take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that could reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use.