When You Censor Student Speech, You’re Teaching Kids to Accept Censorship

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 6 2013 4:23 PM

Censorship 101

What schools are really teaching students when we let them censor their speech.

I Heart Boobies wristbands.
The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear a case involving the suspension of two girls who wore “I ♥ Boobies” wristbands to school.

Courtesy of Keep a Breast Canada

Locker No. 319 at Warren Harding Junior High School in Des Moines, Iowa, is an unlikely historical site. But it seems fitting if you recall that the 13-year-old girl for whom it was dedicated last month is also an unlikely historical figure.

In 1962, the middle-schooler who stored her notebooks in that locker was a self-described “shy good girl” named Mary Beth Tinker. Even though she was quiet and a rule follower, Mary Beth was also moved by the carnage of the Vietnam War she was witnessing on television every night. So she, along with her brothers and sisters, decided to wear black armbands to school as a symbol of mourning for the casualties of the war and to signal support for Robert F. Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. Having gotten wind of the kids’ plan, the school district spontaneously instituted a “no armband” policy. The children wore them anyhow. The vice principal called Mary Beth out of algebra class and suspended her. Her family sued, claiming the suspension violated her First Amendment rights. 

The case ultimately made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a 7–2 decision, the justices ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas used language both poetic and sweeping: Students, he wrote, “may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate,” nor can they be “confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.” It was a landmark victory for student speech rights. Mary Beth and her family celebrated that event with ice cream and soda pop.

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But that was then; this is now.

In the more than 40 years since its decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court has heard only three other student speech cases. In each of them, the court has ruled in favor of the school. While never overruling Tinker, the court has slowly chipped away at the case’s broad proclamation that students possess the fundamental right to express their views even at school. Tinker only allowed regulation of student speech if there was a specific and significant fear of disruption and cautioned that schools are not “enclaves of totalitarianism.” The court, however, has since green-lighted government censorship in numerous situations, including blatant censorship based on the viewpoint of the message and such malleable concepts as the schools’ stated interest in enforcing “the shared values of a civilized social order.” 

The court is now poised to decide whether to hear the case of two other middle-school girls, Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez, who were suspended for wearing wristbands that read “I ♥ Boobies! (Keep a Breast)” to school. The girls claim the bracelets are a way to promote awareness of breast cancer, a disease that has affected both their families. The school claims the bracelets were lewd and indecent.

While teaching students civility and protecting them from possibly inappropriate messages are understandable goals, they come with serious costs. Punishing students for their speech robs our public debate of needed voices, and it teaches our children—who, of course, one day become adults—that censorship, even broad and sometimes arbitrary censorship, is acceptable.

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