Sunday, December 15, 2019

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Article Index

C. Student Rights

Another important issue is whether students may challenge curricular decisions. Such challenges are often brought on First Amendment grounds. While the starting point for students' First Amendment rights in school is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District and its progeny, the Tinker substantial disruption test does not provide an adequate framework for student challenges to curricular decisions. Some courts have suggested that students have a First Amendment right to challenge overly narrow or ideological curriculum-related decisions that interfere with students' freedom to hear. These challenges highlight the tension between the rights of students to learn in the marketplace of ideas and the responsibility of school officials to select appropriate content and teaching methods and inculcating basic moral values. In deciding such First Amendment challenges, courts will consider whether the school official's regulation of curriculum content was reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern.

Most student challenges to curricular decisions have involved the removal of controversial books from the school library. For example, in Board of Education v. Pico, a plurality of the Supreme Court held that a local school board could not remove controversial books from its library shelves merely because the Board members disliked material contained in the books. The Court concluded that the Board's action violated a student's right of access to ideas under the First Amendment. However, the Court limited its decision to school cases involving optional reading books in a school library and refused to enter the difficult terrain of a school board's discretion to prescribe the curricula of the school.

Students in the TUSD might argue that because the decision to dissolve the MAS program was based in part on controversial textbooks, the case is analogous to library book cases and should be governed by Pico.However, a recent First Circuit case, Griswold v. Driscoll, demonstrates that courts are unwilling to apply the Pico plurality's notion of non-interference with school libraries as a constitutional basis for limiting the discretion of state authorities to set curriculum. In contrast to library cases like Pico, courts generally hold that students do not have a First Amendment right to challenge classroom curricular decisions unless certain constitutional concerns are clearly implicated, such as issues involving the Establishment Clause. In fact, the Supreme Court has clearly established school administration control over school-sponsored student expression. So strong is the discretion that courts grant to school officials to make sound curricular decisions that the Seventh Circuit has held that student challenges to curricular decisions must cross a relatively high threshold before entering upon the field of a constitutional claim suitable for federal court litigation.

However, some courts have considered students' First Amendment rights through the rubric of censorship in the classroom. In Borger v. Bisciglia, a school district refused to allow high school students to view the film Schindler's List as part of the school's curriculum due to the its R rating. A district policy limited the use of rated commercial films in the classroom to those rated PG-13, PG, and G. One student challenged the district's policy, claiming it violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The court dismissed the claim on summary judgment finding that the law does not support Borger's First Amendment claim.

Noting the abundant discretion that courts give to school officials in constructing curriculum, the court considered whether the district's decision bore a reasonable relationship to a legitimate pedagogical concern. Importantly, the court determined that this was not a case in which the plaintiff alleges that school officials acted pursuant to political ... beliefs. Instead, the student argued the district's reliance on the MPAA rating system in order to exclude a movie from the curriculum was not reasonably related to the legitimate pedagogical concern of preventing students from viewing movies with violence, nudity, and harsh language. The court disagreed and found the district's reliance on the MPAA ratings was a reasonable way of determining which films were likely to contain inappropriate material for high school students. The court premised this holding on the fact that the policy was an exercise of school board discretion which required only reasonableness.

In a similar case, Krizek v. Board of Education, a teacher sought to enjoin a school district from terminating her employment contract for showing her students an R-rated film, arguing that the district's decision violated her rights under the First Amendment. The teacher had shown her students the film About Last Night, which contained sexually explicit scenes and vulgar language.

The court noted that public schools have a dual function in society: developing inquisitive minds and transmitting the mores of the community. This dual function requires a balancing of teachers' First Amendment rights in the classroom with a school's limitations on teachers' classroom speech. The court then referred to two types of cases involving teacher speech in the classroom: (1) those involving curricular decisions made by school officials and challenged by teachers; and (2) those where a teacher is disciplined for expression in the classroom. Regarding cases involving curricular decisions, the court noted broad deference is awarded to school administrators in making such decisions.

The court found the Kuhlmeier standard was the proper test for challenges against school administrators' regulation of curriculum content. Applying the standard, the court concluded the school could have made a pedagogic determination that the movie was inappropriate for the classroom, given its legitimate concern over the display of vulgarity and sexual scenes. In making this determination, the school legitimately terminated the teacher's employment for disobeying a school policy without infringing on the teacher's First Amendment rights.

As such, while the Supreme Court vigorously supports the free exchange of ideas in the classroom, public school curriculum bears the imprimatur of the state and, accordingly, the state may reasonably regulate the content of student speech related to the curriculum in the classroom. Likewise, courts have refused to recognize the classroom as a public forum during instructional time.

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