Last week the Supreme Court heard its most important student speech case in nearly a half-century. The case took into question whether schools can punish students for speech that occurred off campus or online. The case has the ability to transform student speech rights in every public school nationwide. No matter what decision is made in the case, the state of Utah ought to make a statement to the nation by passing legislation in defense of student speech.
To begin to understand student speech rights nationwide, you must first look at the case of Tinker versus the Des Moines Independent Community School District. A woman named Mary Beth Tinker made one choice that revolutionized how the government views student rights nationwide. Motivated by strong emotions and wanting to express her First Amendment rights, she wore a black armband to school, an action which escalated to the suspension of five children and a 7-2 decision in the United States Supreme Court. It was decided that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Despite this monumental decision, the courts have quickly regressed over time and passed a substantial number of cases restricting student rights. In the 1980s, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier appeared before the United States Supreme Court and it was decided that schools did not need to sponsor speech that was “inconsistent with ‘the shared values of a civilized social order.” It also allowed administrators to censor student speech, specifically when it came to the student publications. This case began an overwhelming slew of cases and laws restricting students’ freedoms in schools. Despite this new cloud of restrictions hovering over schools, there is hope. States across the nation have been passing legislation such as the New Voices Act which overturns Hazelwood and returns the Tinker precedent.
When students are knowledgeable of their First Amendment rights, they are more likely to use them. They are more likely to share their opinions and share their voice. When promoting these rights in schools, students become more active in their societies and communities. The National Coalition Against Censorship shares, in their guide for educators, that education plays a vital role in our society. “Education in a democratic society requires developing citizens who can adapt to changing times, decide important social issues, and effectively judge the performance of public officials.” To fulfill this type of education, one that creates the citizens of tomorrow, schools must enforce these values. This begins by giving students access to their First Amendment freedoms. When students have access to these, real change will occur. One of the best ways to promote these is through student forums such as published journals, newspapers and yearbooks.
Student journalists across the nation are revolutionizing the way people consume and cover news. They are telling the untold stories in their schools; revealing the secrets from the inside that no other journalist has access to. Students are utilizing their unique perspectives and opportunities to tell the untold stories and create change in their communities.
An article published in the New York Times illustrates the story of how a group of students living outside of Salt Lake City wrote investigative stories looking into why a teacher was fired. They discovered that a male history teacher had been exchanging inappropriate text messages with an underage female student. They discovered that the school not only knew about this but that this had happened before at a previous school.
All of the information was obtained legally, and all of the information published was accurate, but the publication was still censored. The administration took down Herriman High’s publication and all corresponding websites, an action to which students responded by creating a new publication. These students boldly prioritized truth in their community over anything else. They prioritized student voices and safety over the cloud of secrecy created by administrators. If the New Voices legislation had been passed in Utah, these students could publish without fear of censorship and possibly even suspension. If this legislation was passed, students could publish these stories more often and be more informed in their schools. How do we expect students to actively engage in their education when they feel like they don’t have a voice or opinion in their schools?
We are facing a crisis in our public schools. As more pressure is being placed on students nationwide to succeed, why are we restricting students from the very freedoms needed to actively participate in a free society? In 1988 the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that administrators can justify censorship of legitimate student speech in schools. This standard of restricted speech has created a cloud over our nation’s schools; it is time to prioritize the constitutional rights of every citizen, including every student.
It is time to teach students that they are not just the future, but that they are the present. It is time to show students that their voice matters, that even they can change the world. It is time to pass the New Voices legislation in the state of Utah.
— Decker Westenburg