Welcome to the "Student Rights" section of FindLaw's Education Law Center. 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 sometimes legally restrict the rights of those within their schools, universities, and educational institutions. This section provides information and resources for students, parents, teachers and school administrators involving the right to student speech, religion, and school privacy. This section also provides an in-depth look at laws protecting student rights, drug testing, and school prayer.
Perspectives on free speech in public schools have changed dramatically throughout the years. While the concept of free speech in schools was routinely dismissed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District decision. The Court held that while student speech is constitutionally protected, it may be censored if it causes "substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others." This case involved student protests against the controversial war in Vietnam.
The Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision further established the limits of free speech in public schools, holding 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.
Despite First Amendment free speech protections, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 (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. But if administrators are able to prove that a particular book is inappropriate for children, it may be removed. This varies by school level. For instance, Lord of the Flies may not be considered appropriate for elementary school students, but is generally fine for high school students (although that book has been challenged at the high school level as well).
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
Religion at School
The issue of religion in school continues to be very controversial, particularly with respect to school prayer. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of any particular religion by the government. Since public schools are government entities, they may not encourage, sponsor, endorse, or in any way direct religious activities. However, teachers may discuss religion in the context of education, such as discussing the Crusades or the Christian influence on Renaissance art. School prayer is protected, but only if it's voluntary and non-disruptive.
Students have the right to be free from intrusion into personal matters, but these rights end where the safety of others is concerned. For instance, information that leads administrators to believe a student has a weapon in his backpack justifies a search of the backpack. Additionally, schools may not share your personal information (including academic, disciplinary, and health records) with third parties.
However, students are not always protected from drug testing. Student athletes may be tested, without suspicion, in accordance with 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 requirement that schools drug test students only where there is probable cause. But the High Courts of some states, including Pennsvylvania, have ruled that random, suspicionless drug testing is in violation of their state constitutions.
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