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First Amendment Cases: From the Courtroom to the Classroom

i-heart-boobies-405d36cba55437e9As a Government teacher, I am in the midst of teaching the Freedom of Speech aspect of the First Amendment. I have a number of courts cases that might be of interest for my fellow teachers, depending on how much time you would want to devote . All illustrate the strength of American traditions of freedom of expression. The first is Texas v. Johnson(1989) Т which reaffirmed the right of symbolic speech in allowing the burning of an American flag in protest . The second deals with the Westboro Baptist Church; the court case that is the focus of their first amendment right to demonstrate is Snyder v. Phelps(2011). The video that I show in conjunction with this group is “OFFICIAL Video: Russell Brand interviews Westerboro Baptist Church” on http://www.youtube.com. If you would like to focus on issues that have arisen in schools, the foundational case for student expression is Tinker v. Des Moines (1969 )when students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Subsequent cases always look back to Tinker as a precedent. InТ  Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1989),Т  the court retreated from Tinker by finding that schools could censor and punish students for “lewd, indecent, or offensive” speech after a nominating speech described a fellow student thusly: “I know a man who is firm-he’s firm in his pants, he’s firm in his shirt, his character is firm…” But what is construed as offensive in oneТ school can have a different interpretation in another school in another state.Т The findingТ Pyle v. South Hadley School Committee (1996) allowed students to wear t-shirts with sexual subtexts (Coed Naked Civil Liberties [front] Do It to the First Amendment [back]. AnotherТ case that I use to wrestle with the concept of free speech in schools is Morse v. Frederick (2007). During the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay, Joseph Frederick unfurled a banner (across the street from the school) that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” His suspension and appeal led five years later to a Supreme Court ruling that gave educators the right, at a school-sponsored event, to suppress a message promoting illegal drug use. The most recent case I used and just in time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month is one in which the SupremeТ Court declinedТ this past March to hear a case inТ whichТ middle school students in Pennsylvania fought for the right to wear “I (heart) Boobies!” bracelets. The high court rejected the 2010 case from the Easton school district. Т I have found that students really enjoy discussing these issues, and they don’t all think thatТ school should be a free-for-all of opinion. I think our own court cases should provide an interesting lens through which to view “Forbidden Voices”.

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