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American Bar Association

ABA Section of Litigation
Children's Rights Litigation

Case Notes


Landmark Juvenile Law Cases: First Amendment

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988)

Student members of a school newspaper alleged that their First Amendment rights were violated when the principal decided to omit two pages of the school newspaper in order to protect the identity of a student who was discussed in the article. The district court found in favor of the school district and the Eighth Circuit reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court found that public school students do not automatically have the same First Amendment rights of adults outside the school and that the school paper was not a forum for public expression like traditional public forums. The Court also found that the school had an interest in protecting the identity of the students in an article about pregnancy as well as in maintaining the integrity of student speech allowed in the school newspaper. Finally, the Court held that the principal’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Thus, the Court reversed the Eighth Circuit and held that the principal’s actions did not violate the First Amendment.

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Frazier, 478 US 675 (1986)

The issue was whether a school district’s suspension of a high school student for giving a lewd speech violated the First Amendment. At a school-sponsored function, a student delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for student elective office. Throughout the speech, the student referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor, despite that the student was warned by his teachers not to use the language and that use of the language could have severe consequences. Pursuant to the district’s disciplinary rules, the student was suspended from school for two days. The student alleged that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech was violated and sued the school district, seeking both injunctive relief and monetary damages. Both the trial court and the Ninth Circuit found that the student’s First Amendments rights were violated.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the First Amendment did not prevent the school district from suspending the student because the school district acted within its authority in punishing the student for his offensive speech. The Court found that the penalties imposed were unrelated to any political viewpoint and that allowing that kind of language in a school sponsored event would undermine the school’s basic educational mission. Thus, the student’s First Amendment rights were not violated by the school district.

Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982)

The issue was whether the First Amendment prohibits a local school board from exercising its discretion to remove library books from school libraries, that the board characterized as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” 457 U.S. at 857. The students of those schools sued, claiming the removal of books violated their First Amendment rights. In a plurality opinion, three justice of the U.S. Supreme Court stated that students had a First Amendment right to receive ideas and information as a necessary predicate to their meaningful exercise of the rights of speech, press, and political freedom. Another justice concurring in the judgment wrote that the state had no authority to deny access to ideas for political reasons, while a fifth justice concurring in the judgment did not want to reach the First Amendment question on an incomplete record.

Tinker v. des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969)

School officials suspended students from public high school because they wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. The students sued the school under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking nominal damages and an injunction that forbid the school from suspending the students. The trial court dismissed the complaint, upholding the constitutionality of the school district’s action on the ground that it was reasonable to maintain school discipline. The Eighth Circuit considered the case en banc and, because the court was equally divided, the lower court’s decision was affirmed without opinion. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the wearing of armbands in this case was not tied to any disorderly conduct by the participants and thus that it was “closely akin to ‘pure speech,’” 393 U.S. at 505, which is protected by the First Amendment. The record reflected that the students simply wore the arm bands to school in protest, but still attended classes without any interference with work and or discipline. The Court held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights” at the schoolhouse door. 393 U.S. at 506. Thus, the Court found that the school could not deny the students’ form of expression and held that the students’ First Amendment rights were violated and reversed and remanded the case to the circuit court.

Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 (1968)

The issue in this case was whether a New York criminal obscenity statute that prohibited the sale of magazines with sexual content to minors was constitutional on its face. A store owner was found guilty of selling two adult magazines to a 16 year old boy in violation of the criminal statute prohibiting the sale of such magazines to minors. The state supreme court affirmed the conviction and the store owner was denied leave to appeal to the state court of appeals. The store owner alleged that the constitutional freedom of expression secured to a citizen to read or see sexually explicit material could not depend upon the age of a citizen.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court, finding that the statute did not “invade[s] the area of freedom of expression constitutionally secured to minors.” 390 U.S. at 637. The Court found that the criminal statute in question was rationally related to the interest of protecting children because both parents and the state have an interest in the well being of children. The Court also held that it was rational for the legislature to find that the minors’ exposure to sexually explicitly magazines might be harmful to children, even if the same material is suitable for adults. Thus, the Court found that the statute was constitutional and affirmed the lower court.

Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)

The issue in this case was whether a state statute requiring that children up the age of 16, including those who practiced Amish and Mennonite religions, attend public or private school violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Amish and Messonite parents who did not send their children to high school were found guilty of violating the compulsory public school attendance law. The parents practiced the Amish and Mennonite religions and argued that sending their children to public school after the eighth grade violated their religious beliefs and threatened their religious way of life. They educated their children at home to learn farming and homemaking in a rural community and generally prepared them to become functioning adults in their communities. The state supreme court reversed the convictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court found that the parents’ fundamental religious beliefs that their children should remain “aloof from the world,” 406 U.S. at 210, and “accept the heavy obligations imposed by adult baptism,” 406 U.S. at 211, was endangered by the enforcement of the public education laws. The Court held that accommodating the parents’ religious objections by forgoing one or two additional years of formal high school would not harm the children in any way. The Court determined that the parents were not just trying to protect their way of life, but their religious belief, which was undoubtedly sincere. Thus, the Court held that the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibited the State from compelling the parents to send their children to formal high school to age 16.

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