Hazardous freedom: A cultural history of student freedom of speech in the public schools
Wesley, Donald C.
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In public schools, student expression commonly calls for the attention of school staff in one form or another. Educators have a practical interest in understanding the boundaries of student freedom of speech rights and are often directed to the four student speech cases decided to date by the Supreme Court ( Tinker v Des Moines (1969), Bethel v Fraser (1986), Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier (1988), and Morse v Frederick (2007)). Sources about these cases abound, but most focus on legal reform issues such as the political arguments of opposing preferences for more student freedom or more school district control or the lack of clear guidance for handling violations I propose an alternative approach to understanding the Supreme Court’s student speech jurisprudence focusing not on its correctness but on cultural influences which have worked and continue to work on the Court both from without and within. This approach may lead to a new understanding of Court decisions as legally binding on educators and an appreciation of the necessary rhetorical artistry of the Justices who write them. Not intended in any way as an apologetic of the Court’s decisions on student speech, this study is based particularly on the work of Strauber (1987), Kahn (1999) and Mautner (2011). It takes the form of a cultural history going back to the Fourteenth Amendment’s influence on individual rights from its ratification in 1868 to its application in Tinker in 1969 and beyond. Seen as cultural process which begins with the Amendment’s initial almost complete ineffectiveness in restricting state abridgment of fundamental rights including speech to its eventual arrival, fully empowered, at the schoolhouse gate, this study attempts to make student speech rights more accessible to educators and others. The tensions between the popular culture which espouses the will of the people and the internal legal culture of the Court itself and its most outspoken and articulate Justices resolve into decisions which become the law of the land, at least for the moment. The study also offers implications for administrators together with suggestions on how to stay current with free speech case law applicable to the schools.