Can I be censored or punished for my speech on campus?


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Yes. Schools have what is known as an “in loco parentis” relationship with the student. In loco parentis literally means “in place of the parent.” Just like a parent would protect a child, so to can a school censor speech to protect its students.

When can the school censor my on-campus speech?

Generally speaking, a school can restrict your free speech while on campus if the message you are trying to deliver may potentially interfere with the schools ability to take care of and educate other students. These are generally identified as three types of speech: 1. lewd and vulgar speech; 2. speech that appears to be endorsed by the school; 3. speech promoting illegal drug use.


1. What is lewd and vulgar speech?
Lewd and vulgar speech is generally any speech, made by a student on campus, that contains explicit sexual content, foul language or anything that might make other students uncomfortable. As a general rule of thumb, if it is too offensive to for a “PG-13” movie, it’s likely inappropriate for a school.

A key decision attempting to define vulgar and lewd speech stated “vulgar and lewd speech and conduct are completely inconsistent with the values of public school education.” Bethel School Dist. v. Fraser

This certainly leaves some area for argument as to what is vulgar and lewd speech. Importantly, courts have also stated that “the lewdness standard cannot be extended to justify a school’s punishment” of a student’s off campus profane language that did not occur during school hours. Snyder v. Blue Mountain


2. What is school sponsored speech?
The Supreme Court has held that schools do not violate students first amendment rights when restricting speech in school-sponsored activities, so long as the restriction was in order to promote educational goals of the school. There have been cases where the school was found to have rightfully restricted articles in the school’s newspaper in order to protect a student’s privacy. 

Moreover, because articles published in the school newspaper generally appear to have the approval of the school, the Court has noted that schools may disassociate themselves from speech that is, “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.” The thinking is that speech that interferes with the school’s primary objective, which is to educate, may be restricted. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier


3. What is speech promoting illegal drug use?
Courts have held that because schools are entrusted with the safeguard and care of their students, they can shield students from speech that encourages illegal drug use.

In a famous case, a student was forced to remove a banner located off, but near campus, that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” The Court ruled that “the ‘special characteristics of the school environment,’ and the governmental interest in stopping student drug abuse… allow schools to restrict student expression that they reasonably regard as promoting illegal drug use.” Morse v. Frederick

Along these same lines, you can expect that almost all references to illegal drugs on campus will drawn the attention of faculty and administration.


4. What is that speech invades the rights of other students?
In the Tinker case, the Court held that a school may regulate student speech that interferes with the “school’s work or [collides] with the rights of other students to be secure and let alone.” While there has yet to be a case based on this issue in the Supreme Court, it appears that speech that impinges rights of other students may be prohibited even if a substantial disruption of school activities is not reasonably foreseen.

In Harper v. Power Unified School District, the court clearly stated “It is simply not a novel [or disputed] concept, however, that such attacks on young minority students can be harmful to their self-esteem and to their ability to learn. 

That being said, speech invades the rights of others only where it is a verbal assault on other students based on an fundamental identifying characteristic such as race, religion, or sexual orientation. It is argued that these qualities makes the attacked student particularly vulnerable, and thus they should have greater protection.

However, it’s interesting to note that Tinker held that the school’s ability to censor in this regard is currently limited only to attacks against members of these protected groups. These rules do not extend to speech that may be potentially emotionally harmful to members outside of a protected group.

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