The Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment to the Constitution, protects every American's right to freedom of speech. Like most rights, however, freedom of speech is not an absolute right and may be subject to several restrictions. Typically these restrictions relate to defamatory or obscene speech or to specific types of speech in certain situations such as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.
Sometimes questions arise regarding exactly how freedom of speech can be limited. Certain scenarios, such as a school where teachers and administrators are responsible for guiding and supervising students, create difficult situations for evaluating one's freedom of speech. In the schoolhouse setting there is a particularly difficult question of whether or not school supervision extends to limiting the things that students can say in the classroom.
The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld the right of one student's free speech in the case of K.A. v. Pocono Mountain School District. In this case, an unnamed 5th grader identified only as K.A. tried to hand out invitations for a church Christmas party that included face painting and other events for youngsters. The student's teacher stopped K.A. and told her that she needed to get permission from the principal and superintendent in order to distribute literature from outside the school district. When K.A. tried to seek approval to hand out the invitations, however, she was denied and eventually filed a complaint.
In evaluating this case, the Court relied on a previous standard established in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that stated that a school could only limit a student's right to free speech if it could show that the speech would cause a significant disruption. Handing out Christmas party invitations is not something that the Court believes would cause such a disruption in a 5th grade classroom. Therefore, the Court upheld K.A.'s right to hand out the invitations even though it advertised for a religious organization's event.
This case shows that even if an organization such as a school has the right to control or limit an individual's speech, such control cannot be unlimited. Instead, an employer or school must be reasonable in the way that it tries to limit the speech of others.
For more information, you may contact one any of our skilled civil rights law attorneys.