Student Speech Rights in the Information Age

For nearly twenty years, the First Amendment framework chiseled out by the Tinker[1]-Fraser[2]-Hazelwood[3] trilogy worked wonders in establishing whether student speech could be regulated. Though students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,”[4] school administrators have the authority to curtail or prohibit various forms of speech: that which would materially and substantially disrupt a classroom, is plainly offensive, or promotes illegal drug use. Educators may also exert editorial control over school-sponsored expressive activities, such as a school newspaper written by students.

As my colleague Bob, succinctly wrote, these cases were “once thought to provide parents and teachers with a viable and stable framework for reconciling student rights of free speech with educators’ rights to maintain good order and discipline.”[5] Technology, which we insist makes life easier, instead simply made things more clouded and ushered in a new battleground for student speech litigation.

Today, students are connected to each other through email, instant messaging, blogs, social networking sites, and text messages. An email can be sent to dozens or hundreds of other students by hitting ‘send.’ A blog entry posted on a site such as livejournal.com can be instantaneously viewed by students, teachers, and administrators alike. Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse.[6]

Thus, what happens when a student, who is neither on school grounds nor at a school-sponsored event, engages in speech critical of school administration? Does the school have authority to punish the student? The Second Circuit held the in the affirmative: quoting a decision rendered only two years earlier, the Court condoned discipline for speech or expressive conduct made off school grounds if the conduct “would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment”[7] should the expression reach school grounds.[8]

Findings in other cases, however, are setting up the issue of disciplining off-campus student speech for a day in the U.S. Supreme Court, in large part due to conflicting decisions in the Appellate Courts.[9] Most recently on September 6, 2012, the United States District Court of the District of Minnesota, located in 8th Circuit, denied a defendant school district (and the defendant administrators) its motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a student who was punished for her off-campus speech.

In that case, using her personal computer at home, the student wrote on her own Facebook wall that she hated a school monitor because she “was mean to me.” For this, school administrators gave a warning. When the student thereafter posted a message that stated, “I want to know who the f%$# [sic] told on me,” again using her personal computer at home, she received a one-day suspension and was prohibited from attending a school-sponsored ski trip. Characterizing these posts as “a far cry from the statements made by the students in cases in which courts have approved of school intervention,” the District Court found that these statements “were not likely to cause a substantial disruption to the school environment.”[10]

While the foundations of student speech regulations are not yet set, it is important for students to realize that any electronic communication they send could potentially be viewed by anyone. All it takes is the recipient hitting the “Forward” button to send to unknown parties or “tattletaling” to a teacher or school administrator. As such, “[a]ny off-campus electronic communication relating or referring to students, teachers, administrators, or school activities has the potential to result in school discipline” and exclusion from participation in school activities.[11]

As a parent, controlling or monitoring your child’s electronic communications has become a highly difficult, if not impossible, task to fully accomplish. This is why it is imperative that you speak to your child about the ramifications of sending out messages they have no way to capture back and which may inadvertently come to the attention of school officials. Nonetheless, if your child is facing disciplinary action for off-campus conduct or speech, it is important that you are aware of your rights and consult an experienced school law practitioner.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about school discipline or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

[2] Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).

[3] Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., 484 U.S. 260 (1988).

[4] Tinker, supra at 506.

[5] “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law,” by Joseph C. Maya, Esq., Esq, at 83.

[6] Doninger v. Niehoff, 594 F.Supp. 2d 211, 223 (D. Conn. 2009), aff’d in part and rev’d in part 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 8441 (2d Cir. Apr. 25, 2011).

[7] Wisniewski v. Board of Education, 494 F.3d 34, 40 (2d Cir. 2007).

[8] Doninger, supra at 217.

[9] Compare Doninger, supra, with J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 11947 (3d Cir. June 13, 2011) and Layshock v. Hermitage School District, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 11994 (3d Cir. June 13, 2011).

[10] R.S. et al v. Minnewaska Area School District No. 2149 et al, Civ. No. 12-588 (MJD/LIB). Accessed October 3, 2012: http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/minnesota/mndce/0:2012cv00588/124914/28/

[11] Maya and Bob, supra at 92.