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Charter schools are public schools -- except, apparently, when they aren't

(09/22/13 5:13pm)

In a recent Education Week blog post, author and education reformer Sam Chaltain asked a question that, until recently, seemed beyond doubt: Do students in charter schools have First Amendment rights? The answer is in some doubt as a result of a pair of court rulings absolving charter schools of violating the rights of students or employees. Unlike truly private schools, charter schools derive their funding and their legal existence from local school districts (that's where the "charter" comes from). School boards hold life-and-death authority over these schools, and state laws generally require that (unlike truly private schools) they accept all qualified applicants. Charter schools do enjoy a measure of separation from the government because they are statutorily exempted from certain state oversight requirements that apply to traditional public schools.


Chicago teacher's "teachable moment" about racial slur leads to favorable "academic freedom" ruling

(10/08/13 5:35pm)

Federal courts rarely afford much weight to the "academic freedom" of public school teachers when they're disciplined for what they say during class, but an Illinois district court has made an exception in a rather unlikely factual setting: A Chicago teacher suspended for saying the "n-word" in front of sixth-graders. In Brown v.



Mary Beth Tinker closes one more chapter in the history books, and turns the page to another

(12/10/13 2:30pm)

"Inspiring." "Powerful." "Life changing." That's what young people across America had to say when Mary Beth Tinker's magical freedom bus came through their towns. There was understandable skepticism when Mary Beth and her attorney "copilot," Mike Hiestand, announced plans for a nationwide tour to reignite young people's passion for the First Amendment.


First Amendment groups ask federal appeals court to overturn Hazelwood-based removal of Hawaii college student

(12/11/13 4:13pm)

Can a student be kicked out of a degree program at a public university because those in charge of his department think his ideas are outside the mainstream of his intended profession? That's the issue presented by a just-filed case before the Ninth U.S.


Student activist's First Amendment case against Valdosta State president faces key appeals-court showdown

(12/18/13 3:47pm)

Six years after Thomas Hayden Barnes was tossed out of college without warning for vociferously criticizing a plan to replace campus greenspace with parking garages, his First Amendment claim still awaits a day in court. That day is a bit closer with an argument docketed at the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit U.S.


Kansas Regents are backpedaling on controlling employees' off-campus online lives. Why should they even want to try?

(01/02/14 11:37am)

I've got a column on today's Inside Higher Ed that looks from a constitutional-law perspective at how badly the Kansas Board of Regents overreached in trying to make just about anything an employee says on the Internet grounds for disciplinary action, including firing. As I explain in the essay, the Supreme Court made what should have been understood as a minor exception to the First Amendment in a 2006 case called Garcetti v.



Student's "lewd" video about teacher provokes errant Wisconsin ruling applying "online harassment" law

(02/23/14 9:32pm)

Can derogatory remarks about a teacher be both constitutionally protected speech and also punishable as harassment? A Wisconsin appeals court appears to believe so. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is being asked to take up the case of "Kaleb K.," a 15-year-old student from Stevens Point, Wisc., who was arrested after posting a homemade rap on YouTube filled with profane, degrading language about his Spanish teacher. In September 2012, a juvenile-court judge declared Kaleb delinquent on the grounds of violating state criminal statutes against disorderly conduct and unlawful use of a computer communications system. In a ruling last November, the state Court of Appeals threw out the disorderly conduct charge, finding that Kaleb's lyrics, though distasteful, were not threatening, obscene or otherwise outside the boundaries of the First Amendment. But the court then went on to uphold the conviction under the state's computer-harassment law, which makes it a misdemeanor if a speaker "sends a message to [a] person on an electronic mail or other computerized communication system" that contains lewd or profane language "with the intent to harass, annoy, or offend." It's possible to harass someone even with a constitutionally protected message if the speech is delivered in an especially harassing manner.


Spotlight shines on colleges' regulation of student-athletes social media posts

(03/19/14 1:14pm)

In a new law journal article, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, makes a case for why universities shouldn’t regulate student-athletes’ social media accounts and online speech. “What makes social media novel and empowering — that it is an immediate, unfiltered way to ‘speak’ with thousands of people — is also what makes it frightening to campus regulators,” LoMonte writes. At a public institution, the First Amendment protects students' ability to express themselves free from government sanction, and the Due Process Clause protects against the removal of public benefits in an arbitrary way or without adequate notice.




A constitutional right to leggings and long hair? When are school dress codes unfashionable?

(04/16/14 4:43pm)

Momentous advances in free-speech law don't always involve historic acts of journalistic courage. Sometimes they start with something as tiny as a kid who doesn't want a haircut. That's what led a Chicago-based federal appeals court to conclude that it can be unlawful gender discrimination to make male high-school athletes, but not female ones, wear their hair short. In a 2-1 ruling issued in February, the federal Seventh Circuit decided that gender-based dress and grooming codes can violate both the federal Title IX gender discrimination statute as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In sending the case back for trial, the appeals court in Hayden v.


Appeals court throws out Iowa student's "name-calling" conviction

(04/22/14 2:29pm)

The justice system increasingly is being asked to intercede in unpleasant social interactions involving young people that, once upon a time, used to get settled through a stern lecture and a parental conference. In Pennsylvania, police charged a 15-year-old with the crime of "disorderly conduct" for secretly recording students bullying him during school, a case that prosecutors recently withdrew after a public outcry. And in Iowa, an Allamakee County high school student was hauled into juvenile court and adjudicated "delinquent," the equivalent to a conviction in adult criminal court, for insulting remarks ("you fat, skanky bitch") that she yelled at a rival student while exiting the school bus. In a victory for judicial restraint, the Iowa student's case was overturned April 16 by the Iowa Court of Appeals, which reached the common-sense decision that not every upsetting remark can be criminalized as "harassment." In its ruling, the Court of Appeals found that Iowa's criminal harassment statute -- which outlaws speech that is intended, without legitimate purpose, to "threaten, intimidate or alarm" -- cannot be violated by mere insults.


National accolades accompany Tinker Tour 2014 to a triumphant finish line

(04/30/14 11:02am)

Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand's magical journey across America is winning national recognition for igniting a much-needed dialogue about the importance of protecting students against censorship. Launched on Constitution Day 2013, the Tinker Tour is a nationwide First Amendment awareness campaign bringing the landmark student-speech case, Tinker v.


How much free-speech protection does a college applicant have? This federal court says: Zero.

(03/26/15 9:40am)

A student was denied admission to a Maryland community college's program in part because of a remark he made about being religious. Now, a U.S. district judge says the student has no free-speech case, and that colleges have unlimited leeway to reject applicants for "personal" remarks they make during admissions interviews.


Report: Most Americans think students should be free to post about school administrators on social media

(07/06/15 3:41pm)

A new survey conducted by the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center found that 60 percent of Americans think that students should be allowed to post their opinions about school administration on social media, without the threat of punishment. 


Appeals court's "ethnic studies" ruling fortifies students' rights to receive information

(07/20/15 4:46pm)

A federal appeals court allowed student plaintiffs to go forward with due process and First Amendment challenges to the state of Arizona's decision to eliminate "ethnic studies" courses from the K-12 curriculum. The court's 3-0 decision is remarkable for recognizing that students have a constitutionally protected right to receive information even in the classroom setting, a principle that may strengthen the hand of future student plaintiffs.


New federal rule would protect college journalists from IRB demands to review their "research"

(12/27/15 8:07pm)

Federal rules require "research" involving "human subjects" to be approved by colleges' Institutional Review Boards. Overzealous colleges occasionally have insisted that student journalists submit their surveys or questionnaires for institutional pre-approval, violating basic principles of press freedom. The SPLC is urging the federal government to adopt a proposal categorically removing journalism from the purview of IRBs.