The First Amendment in Schools: Introduction

Introduction | The First Amendment and Public Schools | Censorship | How Big a Problem is Censorship? | Roles and Responsibilities | Censorship Policies | Resource Guide

 

NCAC presents the following collection of materials on the topic of censorship in schools for the use of students, educators, and parents everywhere. This information is not intended as legal advice. If you are embroiled in a censorship controversy, we hope you will consult the resources below for guidance — if you need additional assistance, please contact us.

You can also download this guide in two pdfs: The First Amendment in Schools: An Overview and The First Amendment in Schools: Resource Guide.

A. Purpose of the Resource Guide: The First Amendment safeguards the right of every American to speak and think freely. Its promise of freedom of expression and inquiry is central to the educational process and equally important to educators and students. The First Amendment protects educators’ ability to exercise their judgment in accordance with professional standards, and provides the latitude to create learning environments that effectively help young people acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become productive, self-sufficient, and contributing members of society.

This document describes in practical terms what the right to freedom of expression means for the public schools. We hope it provides National Education Association (NEA) staff, as well as teachers and administrators around the country, with a deeper understanding of their constitutionally guaranteed rights and responsibilities, as well as renewed respect for the power of free expression to enhance the educational experience.

B. Free Speech, Public Education, and Democracy: Our founders recognized that public schools are one of the vital institutions of American democracy. But education, they also knew, involved more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Education in a democratic society requires developing citizens who can adapt to changing times, decide important social issues, and effectively judge the performance of public officials. In fulfilling their responsibilities, public schools must not only provide students with knowledge of many subject areas and training in essential skills, but must also educate students on core American values such as fairness, equality, justice, respect for others, and the right to dissent.

Rapid social, political, and technological changes have escalated controversy over what and how schools should teach. Issues like sexuality and profanity have raised questions for generations of parents and educators, but they are even more complicated now, when most school communities are made up of individuals with differing cultural traditions, religions, and often languages. With students and parents bringing a range of expectations and needs to the classroom, educators frequently face a daunting task in balancing the educational needs of an entire student body while maintaining respect for the individual rights of each member of the school community.

The First Amendment establishes the framework for resolving some of these dilemmas by defining certain critical rights and responsibilities of participants in the educational process. It both protects the freedom of speech, thought, and inquiry, and requires respect for the right of others to do the same. It requires us to adhere to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ wise counsel to resort to "more speech not enforced silence" in seeking to resolve our differences.