Know Your Rights

Limitations on Students’ Free Speech

Get a deeper understanding of what the law says

Courts interpreting the First Amendment have recognized a few narrow categories of your right to free speech that schools may restrict, including:

  • Speech that is verbally abusive (harassment)
  • Speech that promotes illegal drug use or that is lewd or profane
  • Speech where school officials can show facts that reasonably lead them to conclude that the speech will cause an actual, substantial disruption to the school’s operation

Schools may not simply assume that speech will be substantially disruptive. Nor can they label speech “substantially” disruptive merely because it could cause controversy, inconvenience or discomfort, or if other people respond to the student’s speech in a disruptive way.

If a group of students harasses a classmate because he or she wears a T-shirt supporting LGBTQ equality, the school must take disciplinary action against the harassers. It may not “solve” the problem by pressuring the student to wear a different shirt.

As one federal court has explained in the context of gay-supportive speech, the First Amendment “does not tolerate mob rule by unruly school children.”

If you have questions or need further information, contact Lambda Legal at 866-542-8336 or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help.