Political speech can be defined as commentary on matters of public concern. According to the Supreme Court, “speech deals with matters of public concern when it can ‘be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community’ (Snyder v. Phelps). Political speech is thus a very broad category. It includes discussion of countless issues like taxes, world events, immigration, healthcare, race, religion, abortion, and candidates for office, and it can be expressed in a variety of media such as speeches, newspapers, paintings, flags, clothing, and songs.
Political speech is omnipresent. Protestors, talk show hosts, and editorial writers all engage in political speech, as do friends who discuss and debate important issues. It can be extremely eloquent, intellectual, and respectful as our many of our country’s most famous works: the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Shephard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster of President Obama.
But political speech can also be extremely crass, hateful, and offensive. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld Americans’ Frist Amendment right to espouse political views in this manner. In Cohen v. California (1971), it overturned the conviction of a man who was arrested for wearing a t-shirt that said “fuck the draft.” In National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977), the Court ruled that neo-Nazis’ display of a swastika fell within their free speech rights. In Snyder v. Phelps (2011), the Court recognized the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to display signs such as “priests rape boys” and “God hates fags” at the funeral of a fallen soldier.
Although government cannot punish citizens for their controversial speech in non-school settings, the rules change when schools are involved. This is because schools are responsible for maintaining an orderly educational environment to help students learn. Schools can punish students whose controversial speech threatens to disrupt this atmosphere. For instance, if a student belonging to the KKK chose to wear his robes in the hallways of his predominantly black school, fights might break out. The school could therefore permissibly forbid the student from wearing the robes.
For further information, check out our guide Know Your Rights: Political Speech in Schools. This guide only considers written and spoken political speech. For discussions of speech in other media, see our pages on student artistic expression, student journalism, criticizing school officials, and social media.
How does the First Amendment protect the rights of students and teachers? This guide provides background on the legal and practical questions surrounding school censorship controversies.