This is part of the Youth Rights 101 series. Please check out Youth Rights 101: Introduction for the rest of the series and more information.
How are young people’s free speech rights violated?
Look no further than the meme of “washing” a child’s mouth out with soap if she utters a swear word. Many probably know superstitions aren’t real, but when it comes to the idea that a child’s mouth must be made “clean” with actual not-for-ingestion soap because she said a “dirty” word, many parents out there haven’t gotten the memo. Schools have rules against use of “foul” or “adult” language, often with harsh consequences.
It’s not necessarily about specific words but also topics or even tone. Some parents and teachers will punish a youth who speaks against their political views or other opinions. A young person’s mere rebuttal to something an adult says is often pegged as “talking back”, a punishable offense.
Schools have even been known to punish students for writing disparaging remarks about the school or principal on their personal blog (Doninger v Niehoff, for example).
Youth are also expected to maintain an over-the-top respectful demeanor when speaking to adults, when the adult has no such requirement toward them.
Many students have been punished for wearing a t-shirt or bracelet with a political or other message that made the school officials uncomfortable.
Student newspapers are censored all the time.
The list could go on and on and on!
Schools use the excuse that the punished or censored speech “disrupts the educational environment” even though there’s no proof of any such thing, and punishing these students certainly disrupts those students’ own education!
While most of these anti-speech actions by schools are in fact unconstitutional, they are often unaware of this, don’t care, or don’t believe the student can or will fight back. And, unfortunately, some Supreme Court rulings, such as Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier and Morse v Frederick, have ruled against the censored students.
The prevailing attitude is that youth may only say what adults allow them to say, and that if they convey an objectionable idea or word choice or tone, oftentimes objectionable only because of the young age of the speaker, it is considered within the adults’ rights to silence and punish that youth. There is no reason for this “right” to restrict and censor the speech of young people other than to exert arbitrary control over those who happened to be born after a certain date, to have the idea that the young are little more than “property” of families or schools.
Of course, nowhere does the First Amendment say it only applies to adults. Freedom of speech is one of if not the most sacred right in our country, and age-based censorship is a poor way to pass such values on to the next generation!
So what do you think? What are some other ways young people’s speech and expression is senselessly silenced or punished? Tell us in the comments!
Our “Freedom of Speech” Forum
Our “Freedom of Speech” articles and posts
Two Youth Rights Views on Sonia Sotomayor (regarding Doninger v Niehoff)
Student Press Law Center
National Coalition Against Censorship