As regular readers of this blog and my former students know, I approach my course on “Law and Public Affairs” through a constitutional lens. There are some obvious reasons for that focus: many of my students will work for government agencies, and will be legally obliged to adhere to what I have sometimes called “the Constitutional Ethic.” Due to the apparent lack of civic education in the nation’s high schools, a troubling number of graduate students come to class with very hazy understandings of the country’s legal foundations.
Freedom of speech seems particularly susceptible to misunderstanding.
The first problem is that a significant number of Americans don’t “get” that the Bill of Rights only restrains government. Walmart or the Arts and Entertainment Channel or (as one angry caller insisted when I was at the ACLU) White Castle cannot be sued for denying you your First Amendment Right to express yourself.
The most difficult concept for my students, however, has been the principle of content neutrality. Government can–within reasonable limits– regulate the time, place and manner of citizens’ communication, but it cannot favor some messages over others. (I used to illustrate that rule by explaining that city ordinances could prohibit sound trucks from operating in residential neighborhoods between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am, but could not allow trucks advocating for candidate Smith while banning those for candidate Jones. I had to discontinue that example when I realized that none of today’s students had the slightest idea what a sound truck was…)
One example I did continue to use was public school efforts to control T-shirts with messages on them. Private schools can do what they wish–they aren’t government–but public schools cannot constitutionally favor some messages over others. This is evidently a lesson that many Indiana schools have yet to learn. A brief article from the Indianapolis Star reports that the ACLU is suing a school in Manchester, Indiana, after a student was forced by administrators to go home for wearing a T-shirt with the text “I hope I don’t get killed for being Black today.”
According to the Complaint, students at the school are allowed to wear T-shirts with Confederate flags and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans. It describes the plaintiff, who is identified only by his initials, as one of the few Black students at the school.
“Schools cannot selectively choose which social issues students can support through messages on their clothing,” Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, said in a prepared statement on Monday. “Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors. The refusal of the school to allow D.E. to wear his t-shirt is a violation of his right to free speech.”
The school would be within its rights to ban all “message” T-shirts (although I can hear the grumbling now). Favoring certain messages over others, however, is a violation of the principle of content-neutrality –a core precept of the Free Speech Clause that prohibits government from favoring some messages over others.
The courts give school administrators a good deal more leeway than other government actors, on the theory that providing an educational environment requires a larger measure of control than would be appropriate for adults. But there are limits; as Ken Falk noted, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Tinker v. DeMoines, students do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.
Far too many school administrators are more focused on exerting control than on modeling or transmitting basic constitutional values. Too many public schools are operated as totalitarian regimes–environments that stress compliance and group-think, rather than teaching critical thinking, acquainting young people with the values of a democratic society, and encouraging civic debate and engagement.
When school officials themselves routinely break the rules, is it any wonder so many young people graduate still unaware of them?