Students frequently have very strong criticisms about their teachers and about how their schools could better be run. Ordinarily speaking, criticizing, insulting, and making fun of governmental workers and policies would unequivocally fall under the scope constitutional protections. However, condemnations of teachers and school policies can cross the line between the constructive criticism that is shielded by the First Amendment and the insubordinate and disruptive activities that are not.
Schools can punish students for speech that disrupts the educational process by disrespecting teachers and administrators. Consider, for instance, the case of Dean Poling, a candidate for student council president who delivered a speech that made fun of an assistant principal’s stutter:
“The administration plays tricks with your mind, and they hope you won’t notice. For example, why does Mr. Davidson stutter while he is on the intercom? He doesn’t have a speech impediment.
Poling was disqualified from the election and sued the school district. In Poling v. Murphy (1989), the Sixth Circuit ruled against Poling, finding that school officials had a legitimate pedagogical interest in promoting civility and protecting the assistant principal’s dignity.
Sullivan v. Houston Independent School District (1973) is a similar case. A student was suspended for violating a content-neutral policy forbidding the distribution of newspapers without prior approval. After he and his parents met with the principal, he told the principal to “fuck off.” He was then suspended for the rest of the semester. Upon review, the Fifth Circuit upheld the increased suspension.
There are few cases in this area. In her book Lessons on Censorship, Catherine J. Ross articulates the following general rule:
“When insubordination takes the form of vulgarities addressed directly to school authorities, schools always have the discretion to punish the student […] Students must find polite ways to protests instead of descending to vulgarity. No matter how frustrated students are, schools may inculcate civility by insisting that students find acceptable ways of expressing themselves.”
The students in Pinard v. Clatskanie School District (2006) did just that. The students were basketball players who believed their coach was verbally abusive, intimidating, and ineffective. The coach once told them that if they wanted him to quit, they should say so. The students then wrote a petition calling for the coach’s ouster. They were then suspended from the team. The Ninth Circuit ruled that because the petition was not vulgar, lewd, obscene, or offensive, it was protected First Amendment speech on several matters of public concern such as teacher conduct and school extracurricular activities.