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A graphic featuring a photo of Brandi Levy (left) and a screenshot of Bryce Dershem (right), both of whom were at the center of conversations involving students and free speech. Photo of Levy courtesy of the ACLU Pennsylvania. Screenshot of Dershem courtesy of Michael Dershem on YouTube.

OPINION: Public schools maintain tight grip on student speech despite recent ruling

High school students still have a long battle ahead for constitutional rights

Protection of the First Amendment in high school has long been debated, and the Supreme Court often rules against the protections of the student. This just solidifies the feeling of powerlessness so many teenagers feel by eroding what should be their fundamental rights to free speech and free expression. Facing such a maelstrom, small victories should be celebrated wherever they may come.

Last month, one such victory arrived with the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Brandi Levy, a Pennsylvania high school girl whose words — specifically, “fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything” — were reaffirmed as protected under the First Amendment. But what may be an empowering success for freedom of speech in public education in the short term is, in reality, only one small chip away from the iron grip education systems maintain on students’ constitutional rights.

The ruling handed down by the Supreme Court in their decision establishes little precedent, as it does not impose “a categorical ban on regulating student speech outside of school,” according to the New York Times. This is the first free speech case won by a high school student in the last 50 years, exemplifying the claim that the Supreme Court shows little support for those still in high school.

Just days before the Court’s decision, a valedictorian in New Jersey, Bryce Dershem, had begun his graduation speech with a reference to his queer identity when his microphone was cut off and his prepared remarks seized. Even before his speech began, Dershem faced pushback from school administrators for another expression of his queer identity: a pride flag worn over his robe, which he refused to remove.

The pushback echoes responses of far greater magnitude against violations of graduation ceremony dress codes, such as Ever López, a student from North Carolina who was initially denied his diploma after violating the ceremony’s dress code by wearing a Mexican flag over his gown.

In an environment as empowering as that of the education setting, charged with the righteous purpose of arming young ones with the tools and knowledge necessary to survive in the world, why endeavor to crush the rights that we are taught are our greatest strength as a country? 

There have been other rare victories in the battle for First Amendment rights among high school students. In 2008, a Florida school’s prohibition of pro-LGBTQ symbols and messages worn by students was struck down by a federal judge.

Despite the precedent established in these scattered successes, some school administrators nonetheless push the envelope and continue to encroach upon students’ rights under the Constitution. 

Disturbingly in these cases, the systems tasked with teaching students what their rights mean are  the very same ones infringing upon those rights. It is truly terrifying to realize that the real instruction of constitutional law for these high school students comes not from teachers, but from lawsuits that they find themselves embroiled in after they dare to peacefully express their beliefs and opinions.

Free speech is not the only constitutional protection to be crippled by school policies and uncomfortably broad guidance from U.S. courts. Students are also less shielded by the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” after a 1985 Supreme Court case lowered the already-unspecific standard of probable cause to what the Court called “reasonable suspicion,” which, when present, does not require the school to obtain a warrant to conduct a search.

The state of press freedoms in high schools are equally as concerning. The Supreme Court’s 1988 opinion in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier dealt what the Student Press Law Center called a “serious blow to scholastic journalism” by awarding administrators an arsenal of vague excuses to censor high school publications such as student newspapers and theatrical productions.

Unfortunately, this is the arena where students learn that the most basic of freedoms, even those understood as self-evident and cemented in our country's most sacred document, are still not ours for free. They may at times be repeatedly under siege, and will require a vigorous and spirited fight to keep.

So keep an eye out for injustice, for you may find it in places closer to home than you would have imagined. And as you notice it, don’t simply dismiss it as the norm — arm yourself with knowledge and protest peacefully against it. Help those who have yet to fully understand their fundamental rights in their fight to keep them and know, as the Supreme Court declared in Tinker v. Des Moines, that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

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Liam DeBonis is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @LiamDebonis

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