Court Cases

First Amendment Rights for Students

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Reiterated students’ right to free speech. The Supreme Court stated: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It also emphasized that the freedom to protest does not create a freedom to disrupt.

Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972). Using Tinker as a foundation, the Supreme Court noted the significance of the First Amendment at state colleges and universities: “State colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment... the precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that... First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.” The Supreme Court went on to note that “The college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas, ...” (Note: The “marketplace of ideas” concept is frequently referenced in academic freedom discussions.)

Content-Based Restrictions on Free Speech

Papish v. Board of Curators of University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667 (1973). A student newspaper editor was expelled for violating a board of curators’ bylaw prohibiting distribution of newspapers “containing forms of indecent speech.” The newspaper contained a political cartoon that depicted policemen raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice with a caption that read: “With Liberty and Justice for All.” Additionally the newspaper contained an article entitled “M_______ F_____ Acquitted.” The student successfully sued the university. Ruling in the student’s favor, the Supreme Court stated: “... Healy v. James makes it clear that the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of conventions of decency.”

Hate Speech

UWM Post v. Bd. of Regents of University of Wisconsin, 774 F. Supp. 1163 (E.D. Wis. 1991). The university was permanently enjoined from enforcing a rule prohibiting racist or discriminatory comments, epithets... comments that would demean the race, sex, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or age of an individual. This rule was considered by the court to be overly broad and vague and thus an imposition on the First Amendment right to free expression. The court pointed out that “above all else, the First Amendment means that the government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”

Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University, 993 F. 2d 386 (4th Cir. 1993). A Greek fraternity chapter was disciplined by the university for holding a “Dress a Sig” event where one participant dressed in black face, used pillows to represent breasts and buttocks and wore a black wig with curlers. Student leaders signed a letter requesting the dean to impose sanctions for the offensive program that perpetuated racial and sexual stereotypes. Sanctions were imposed and the fraternity filed suit. The court did not permit the disciplining of the fraternity by quoting from Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989): “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

The Right to Associate

Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972). A group of students wanted to form a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) whose members on other campuses had been involved in violence, burning of buildings, and inciting of riots. The president of the university denied recognition and the students sued. In the final decision supporting the students, the Supreme Court stated: “Among the rights protected by the First Amendment is the right of individuals to associate to further their personal beliefs. While the freedom of association is not explicitly set out in the Amendment, it has long been held to be implicit in the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition. It is to be remembered that the effect of the College’s denial of recognition was a form of prior restraint and the Court has consistently disapproved governmental action imposing criminal sanctions or denying rights and privileges solely because of a citizen’s association with an unpopular organization. The College, acting here as the instrumentality of the State, may not restrict speech or association simply because it finds the views expressed by any group to be abhorrent.”