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Student Rights and the Supreme Court

A Short History

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The Bill of Rights presumes autonomous individuals and a government that is all too well-equipped to restrict personal autonomy. But students are, by virtue of their social classification, already restricted in their personal autonomy—and government policy sometimes reflects this fact a little too well. In such cases, the judicial system—and the Supreme Court, in particular—have an obligation to examine and protect the rights of students.

West Virginia v. Barnette (1943)

Kindergardners Participate In National Pledge of Allegiance
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During wartime, many U.S. federal and local authorities felt that they had a vested interest in enforcing patriotism among public school children by requiring them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A group of children raised as Jehovah's Witnesses were prohibited from reciting the Pledge on religious grounds, and ran afoul of this requirement. The Supreme Court sided with the kids, as Justice Robert H. Jackson explains in the stunningly quotable majority opinion:
As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be. Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing. Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

The most famous, and arguably most important, Supreme Court ruling in U.S. history deals with the rights of students—namely, the right of black students to receive an equal education in our nation's public schools, despite the wishes of racist Southern government officials who wanted to keep the established "separate but equal" doctrine outlined in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). As Chief Justice Earl Warren writes for the majority:
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
This ruling is still controversial to this day—and public schools remain, for the most part, racially segregated.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

When high school students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, establishment-minded school officials took offense. Justice Abe Fortas put them in their place:
In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are "persons" under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.
While the Supreme Court's subsequent record on protecting the free speech rights of students has been mixed at best, the basic premise of Tinker v. Des Moines—that students have a fundamental right to free speech that cannot be restricted on an administrator's whim—is powerful, and has been important.

Santa Fe v. Jane Doe (2000)

The Supreme Court struck down mandatory staff-sponsored school prayer in the controversial Engel v. Vitale (1962), but adults found a workaround: encourage students to lead public prayers on their behalf, then call these prayers "student-sponsored" and cite religious free exercise as a precedent. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, wasn't buying it:
In this context the members of the listening audience must perceive the pregame message as a public expression of the views of the majority of the student body delivered with the approval of the school administration. In cases involving state participation in a religious activity, one of the relevant questions is "whether an objective observer, acquainted with the text, legislative history, and implementation of the statute, would perceive it as a state endorsement of prayer in public schools." Regardless of the listener's support for, or objection to, the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school's seal of approval.

School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents "that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community." The delivery of such a message -- over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer -- is not properly characterized as "private" speech.
This ruling has been controversial, particularly among members of the Religious Right, but—like most rulings centering on the rights of students—it appears to have been written in order to maintain a stable learning environment and protect the rights of minority students.
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