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Legal Issues to Consider When Addressing School Safety: Free Speech

Mon, May 16, 2011 @ 09:05 AM / by Katie Adams

At, we work with a lot of school districts to help them secure grant funding to improve school security and address emergency preparedness issues. Previously, John from was kind enough to talk about how the right to privacy factors into school security improvements. Today, he tackles the freedom of expression and it’s implications for addressing school safety issues.

 When contemplating school safety practices and improvements, school administrators also need to be aware of the rights students have to free speech. At public schools, the right to free speech still applies. However, as with other constitutional rights, these rights are more limited in the conduct they protect for public school students.

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For example, students are entitled to express their personal and political opinions at school, within reason. In general, if the opinion being expressed by the student has to do with an important political or social issue, it is going to be more protected than, say, a random outburst of profanities. Likewise, speech of a sexual, profane, or drug-related nature is less protected (though, that doesn’t mean that it’s completely unprotected).

However, even if the student is engaged in protected political speech, the school has broad leeway to dictate the time, place, and manner of such speech. For example, a student would probably be allowed to wear a t-shirt expressing a political view, if the message on the shirt was tasteful (even if the political view itself is highly unpopular). 

On the other hand, if the student expresses his or her views in a manner that’s likely to be disruptive (such as interrupting a class or school assembly, staging a sit-in, etc.), the school has a stronger standing in disciplining the student.

If a student advocates illegal activity, regardless of the manner in which they do it, the chances are good that the school will be able to stop them without running into any free speech issues. However, advocating illegal activity should not be confused with advocating a change in the law, which might legalize activity which is currently illegal. For example, wearing a shirt that says “Smoke weed everyday” advocates an illegal activity and can probably be cause to require the student to cover it up or remove it. However, expressing an opinion that current drug laws are flawed and that marijuana should be legalized is another thing entirely and is probably protected speech.

Obviously, this only scratches the surface of the law governing school security, and the respective rights of students and school administrators when it comes to maintaining order at a public school.

If you are a teacher, administrator, parent, or student, and have any questions about your legal rights and responsibilities, you should not hesitate to speak with an attorney who specializes in education law.

John Richards is a writer for and the Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation. 

Looking for funding to improve your school's safety? The Department of Justice just announced the 2011 grant program Secure Our Schools, facilitated through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office. For more information and to access the grant guidelines, talk to a Grant Helper


Want to learn more about the COPS Secure Our Schools grant? Download our free offer Is COPS SOS Right For You?Is COPS SOS Right For You? and find out if your district is prepared to apply.

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Topics: great resources, school safety

Katie Adams

Written by Katie Adams

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