Many students are generally familiar with the First Amendment of the Constitution, but they often overlook that it only confers the right “to petition the Government for a redress of such grievances.” As a result, only government entities are precluded from interfering with students’ First Amendment rights. Public schools are considered extensions of the government, while private schools that do not receive federal funding are not. Thus, only students who attend public schools are protected from reprisal for exercising their first amendment rights.
What Rights are Conferred by the First Amendment?
The First Amendment provides public school students religious freedoms and freedom of speech, press, and assembly. As just a few examples, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment prohibited a high school from disciplining a student who maintained a website that was critical of the school assuming the website did not create a substantial disruption to the school. It has also ruled that colleges may not refuse to confer official status to organizations because they disagree with the group’s ideas or philosophies.
What Exceptions Apply?
Schools are tasked with educating their students and providing safe learning environments. As a result, students’ First Amendment Rights are not without limitations. For example, schools may restrict a student’s free speech or in-school activities if the speech is:
- likely to disrupt school;
- lewd and/or vulgar;
- promotes illegal drug use; and/or
- is part of the school’s curriculum or speech sponsored by the school.
How Can Public School Students Protect Their First Amendment Rights?
Students who believe their Constitutional rights have been violated should report such violations to the school administration. Often, simply discussing the issue with the administration may lead to an amicable resolution. However, students who have attempted to discuss their concerns with the school administration and have not reached an agreeable resolution have the right to sue for the violation of the Constitutional rights under federal law.
Do Private School Students Have Rights?
Because private schools are not extensions of the government, they are not subject to the same Constitutional restraints that public schools are. Still, many private schools have adopted policies that protect their student’s rights to free speech, religion, press, and assembly. These policies can often be found in the school’s student handbook, course catalog, and/or students’ bill of rights. When private schools violate their own policies, students may have claims against the school that sound in contract and/or tort law. However, their claims would not arise under the Constitution.
Consult with an Attorney
Students who believe their schools may have violated their rights should consult with an experienced education attorney. An attorney will help the student understand their rights and the steps they may take to protect them.