Student Speech

Student Speech

In its landmark 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court found that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The ACLU argued the case on behalf of Mary Beth Tinker, defending her right to wear a black armband at school to protest the Vietnam War. We continue to fight for students' constitutional right to free speech.

If students are to become adult citizens trained in the democratic process, they must enjoy the right to express themselves freely without fear of censorship or surveillance. The ACLU monitors the protection of free speech in schools, even as new technologies like tracking devices and social media introduce new challenges. Highlighted below are some of the areas in which we work to protect speech and expression in schools.

Your Social Networking Rights

A growing number of schools and employers are demanding that students, job applicants, and employees hand over the passwords to their private social networking accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter. If you are a public school student and a coach, principal, or other school official asks you to turn over your password to Facebook or any other personal account or device, you should say that you wish to talk to a parent or a lawyer before answering any questions. Though you may be a student, you have privacy rights like any American, and school officials do not have the right to fish through your password-protected information. Find out more here

LGBT Rights in Schools

Our Don't Filter Me project is pursuing the removal of web filters on school computers that are unconstitutionally blocking access to hundreds of LGBT websites, including sites that contain vital resources on subjects like bullying and student gay-straight alliances. We filed lawsuits in several school districts and sent demand letters in many more on behalf of students and organizations whose sites are being blocked. The filters do not block access to comparable anti-LGBT websites that address the same topics, and that violates the First Amendment. Learn More >>

LGBT Youth and Schools: We’re working to make public schools safe and bias-free for LGBT students, defending their free speech in school, and working to help students start gay-straight alliance clubs. Check out our information for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Learn about your rights, download resources and get support.

Additional Resources

Students' Privacy Rights: Growing concern about drugs and violence in schools often trumps students’ privacy rights. Federal courts have found that students' Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizure do no always apply in a public school setting. The ACLU believes that schools are not constitution-free zones, and continues to fight for students' privacy rights, challenging unreasonable strip-searches, electronic monitoring, searches and seizures of property such as cell phones, and inappropriate sharing of students’ personal information across a range of public and private organizations.

Your Right to Free Expression: Wondering if your school is allowed to have a dress code? Or if you have to say the pledge of allegiance? The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government can never deprive people in the U.S. of certain fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of religion and to free speech and the due process of law. Check out this resource for answers to those questions and more.  

For More on the Right to Free Speech in Schools:

YOLO: So Why Was a Texas Prankster Suspended When There Were Better Options? (2013 blog post)

Standing Up for the Rights of Students to Free Expression (2013 blog post, by Mary Beth Tinker)

Following Push by ACLU, School Board Decides Not to Ban All Clubs in Face of Gay-Straight Alliance (2013 press release)

School Principals: Students Have Privacy and Free Speech Rights Too! (2012 blog post)

Big Data: NSA, Facebook—and My University? (2012 blog post)

ACLU Sues Missouri School District for Illegally Censoring LGBT Websites (2011 blog post)

Statistics image