The State of First Amendment Rights in Schools

As members of a private school, BSM students give up their rights to free speech, but the administration still encourages the respectful exchange of ideas.

Ginny Lyons
BSM students reflect on their First Amendment rights.

From kneeling during the national anthem to controversial campus speakers, the freedom of speech has gained a lot of attention in the media lately. However, this freedom is often overlooked in high schools and many forget the true situation of rights for students. BSM is a private and Catholic institution, thus students give up their First Amendment rights when they enroll in the school; however, the administration encourages students to use their freedom of speech respectfully and speak out about their passions and beliefs.

In a public school, the Center for Public Education explains that there are three instances when speech is not protected by a student’s First Amendment rights: vulgar and plainly offensive speech, school sponsored speech, and speech that causes a substantial disruption. “A public school can’t infringe upon your right to free speech unless it’s disruptive to the school environment,” Senior High Principal Dr. Susan Skinner said.

However, at a private school, more specifically, a religious school, the administration is able to impose further restrictions on free speech, even ones that go beyond the public school guidelines. “Our standard of what we expect can be a much different threshold than what a public school accepts,” Assistant Principal Ms. Mary Andersen said.

One way that BSM differs significantly from public schools is through dress code. Technically, if the administration does not approve of a student’s choice for clothing, they can make them change, whereas at a public school, they can only comment on the clothing if it becomes a distraction to the school community. Many students at BSM disapprove of the dress code as it is a restriction on the freedom of expression. “It’s our body and we should be able to choose what we can or can’t put on it,” junior Trevor Metz said.

At BSM, the administration chooses how much to limit the rights of students by looking to religious and educational ideas.“I look for the kind of speech that is compassionate, that is kind and loving but also truthful and critical, and the kind of speech that helps us to come to understanding and challenges us. When I think of free speech, I think of that as a bottom line kind of thing, and if [I] have to [infringe upon your freedom of speech] I will, but 99.9% of time I don’t need to, and 100% of the time I don’t want to. But the reality is, you don’t have free speech here, but neither do I [and] that’s okay––because I know that’s the bottom line: we aspire to something greater,” Skinner said.

I’ve been very proud of the paper, of the staff and the quality of the work, of the professionalism; I’ve seen meaningful work, I’ve seen whimsical and fun work, and I’ve seen work that the students and the school and I can be very proud of.

— Dr. Susan Skinner

So while the students’ freedom of speech may be restricted, the administration encourages students to learn how to express their opinions respectfully while being conscious of others here at school. “I want you to use [your freedom of speech rights] inside of BSM. You should be able to ask tough questions; I want you to think about tough issues; I want you to be critical when it comes to a frame of reference, to discuss with each other, to discuss with your teachers, to discuss with other students from other schools, the problems that are out in the world and need discussion. We want you to operate in a freedom that really is authentic and true,” Skinner said.

Through encouraging students to use their freedom of speech, one of BSM’s outlets for sharing opinions is the student newspaper of BSM, the Knight Errant. “Because we are a high school in the state of Minnesota, we don’t have freedom of the press [and] any school official could legally ask for prior review, which is [when] the administration reads your stories before they are published. Anything that we write could theoretically be subjected to prior review, but at BSM we are lucky: we do not have prior review, which is one of the ways that the administration tries to give our student journalists an authentic, real world learning experience,” English teacher Ms. Kari Koshiol said.

Along with the Knight Errant, there are many clubs at school that allow students to express their opinions and use their First Amendment rights freely. “[The school has] lots of clubs where we can express how we feel, like the Students for Human Life club,” sophomore Kate Sawyer said.

Through the Knight Errant and the variety of clubs that are available to students, the administration encourages adolescents to understand their rights and know how to use them in order to prepare and be ready for the future. “You should know your rights and responsibilities by the time you graduate high school because you’re 18 typically when you graduate, and you’re an adult so you might as well know what you’re up against, what your rights are, what they aren’t and what you’re entitled to,” Andersen said.