Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Student Rights

Welcome to the Student Rights section of FindLaw's Education Law Center. Public education is a cornerstone of American society. It provides millions of students with valuable knowledge and skills. However, the rights of students in the school system are often a topic of discussion. From freedom of speech to privacy, students in both public and private schools have rights protected by federal law and state laws. 

The U.S. Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights (OCR) ensure that students are treated fairly. As the U.S. Supreme Court once declared, students do not "shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door." Still, school administrators may legally restrict the rights of those within the institution.

This section provides information and resources for students. Parents, teachers, and school administrators may also find it useful. This section covers the right to student speech, religion, and student privacy. It also provides an in-depth look at laws protecting student rights, drug testing, and prayer.

Student Speech Rights

One of the most debated topics in public education is student speech. Federal law protects the rights of students to express their views, but school officials do have some authority to limit speech. They can do so if the speech disrupts the learning environment. This is a delicate balance. For example, dress codes might limit certain types of clothing, but they shouldn't violate students' rights to freedom of speech.

Perspectives on free speech in public schools have made dramatic changes throughout the years. The concept of free speech in schools was often dismissed before an important 1969 case, which is the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Tinker v. Des Moines School District

The Court held that student speech is protected by the Constitution, but it also held that speech can be censored in certain situations. If this speech causes "substantial interference with school discipline or the right of others," it can be censored.

The Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision further established the limits of free speech in public schools. The Court held that public school students' free speech rights are not as robust as the First Amendment rights of adults. In that case, students had sued over the administration's editorial control over the school newspaper.

With the rise of social media, the line between school jurisdiction and personal expression has been blurred. Schools might take disciplinary action for online posts, but students also have the right to express themselves outside of school activities.

Banned Books

In the realm of education, the topic of banned books often arises. Some school officials might think certain books are not appropriate for students. Others argue that banning books infringes on educational rights. State laws might vary, but banning a book on the basis of race or national origin would violate civil rights laws. The key is to ensure that books enrich the educational experience. They should do so without disrupting the learning environment.

Despite First Amendment free speech protections, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 in Island Trees School District v. Pico that schools may not remove a book from the school library simply because they disagree with the book's ideas. According to this Court, a school board's "discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner."

Some of the most frequently challenged books in school libraries include:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

The appropriateness of a book has varied by school level. For instance, Lord of the Flies may not be considered appropriate for elementary school students but is fine for high school students.

Religion at School Rights

Religion plays a significant role in many students' lives. Federal law states that public education institutions cannot favor one religion over another. This means students have the right to express their religious beliefs, but schools cannot promote any particular faith.

Students should have equal access to extracurricular activities. This is regardless of whether they are religious in nature or not. Furthermore, schools receiving federal funding or financial assistance cannot discriminate against students. This includes discrimination based on their religious beliefs. School prayer is protected, but only if it's voluntary and non-disruptive.

The issue of religion in school continues to be very controversial, school prayer in particular. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of any particular religion by the government. Public schools are government entities. As such, they can not encourage, sponsor, or endorse direct religious activities. However, teachers may discuss religion in the context of education. For example, they can discuss the Christian influence on Renaissance art.

Student Privacy Rights

Student privacy is crucial in today's digital age. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Privacy Act of 1974 both protect students' education records. Schools cannot share personal information without consent. This includes academic, disciplinary, and health information.

Students have the right to be free from intrusion into personal matters, but these rights end where the safety of others is concerned. For example, suppose there is information that leads administrators to believe a weapon is on campus. They believe it is in a student's backpack based on this information. This would justify a search of the student's backpack.

Students are not always protected from drug testing. Student-athletes may be tested without suspicion. This is allowed under a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Vernonia v. Acton, rejecting a Fourth Amendment claim of privacy invasion. In fact, the Court has subsequently ruled that there is no federal law that schools can drug test students only where there is probable cause and that reasonable suspicion is a proper basis. For more information, take a look at the When is School Drug Testing Legal article.

Special Education and Student Rights

Students with disabilities have the right to special education and related services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is an important federal law in this area. School systems must provide these students with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This could include services like speech therapy, counseling, or physical therapy.

Under IDEA, students are entitled to an environment that's the least restrictive one for them to access education. This means these students should be integrated with their peers as much as possible. Furthermore, schools are obligated to involve parents in the decision-making process for their child's education. This fosters collaboration and transparency in crafting the best educational pathway forward.

Each student's needs are outlined in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Parents and teachers collaborate with educational agencies to develop this plan. Each IEP is customized to the needs of the student. IEPs allow for a holistic approach to the child's education. These documents are regularly reviewed and updated. They serve as dynamic roadmaps with guiding instructions and strategies tailored to each student.

Student Due Process Rights

Every student in the U.S. public education system has the right to due process of law. This fundamental right ensures fairness and justice when school officials take actions that might impact a student's education or reputation. For instance, before a student is suspended or expelled from school, they must be informed of the issues involved. They must also get an opportunity to present their side of the story.

State laws can provide more protection, but at a minimum federal law requires students to receive notice and a chance to defend themselves. If a student in special education faces disciplinary action, the school must consider their disability under IDEA. IDEA provides added safeguards for students with disabilities. In all cases, due process is aimed at ensuring that students' rights are protected.

Click on a topic below to learn more about student rights.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options