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School: Educational and Constitutional Laws

From the onset, it is worth acknowledging that this is an age-long topical issue, which demands utmost attention. This paper thus seeks to tackle the matter against a backdrop of not only the Freedom of Speech as protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and other assorted Federal and State Laws but also the fundamental rights provided for under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

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The basic educational function of a school system is to enable individuals -male and female- to develop capacities and powers latent within them, to contribute their share to an ever-advancing civilization. On the other hand, the role of law –via the constitution- is to stipulate restrictions on the extent of discretionary power and the consequent manner of its exercise. A rather deep interdependence exists between the Constitution and Education, founded by the decision to formulate a governmental structure as a democratic republic.

The Constitution, interpretive of the Supreme Court, significantly affects Public Education, and conversely, how the masses are educated about the constitution, both implicitly and explicitly, fundamentally affects its (the Constitution’s) meaning.

In the twentieth century, various educational cases provided fertile grounds for the evolution of decisions that serve to regulate or outline the very essence of prevailing relationships, not only between the State and racial discrimination, and State and personal choice but also between the State and religion. Remedies for situations of racial inequalities, interactions between the State and Church, not to mention the issue of individual autonomy, all have relevant precedents in educational cases.

Firstly, as regards autonomy and the Freedom of Speech, the ruling in the case of Tinker V. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) comes into play;

Three teenagers had decided to voice their political opinions by wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, despite being aware of a school policy banning the same, and further stipulated that those found in violation of the same would face suspension from the facility, only being re-admitted after complying with that policy. All three students were subsequently suspended from the school in violation of these regulations.

The children’s parents, with the help and at the insistence of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, followed up the case to the Supreme Court, after several unsuccessful appeals in lower courts.

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This Supreme Court held that the activity of the three Tinker-teenagers represented constitutionally protected symbolic speech since their suspensions were more bent on avoiding controversy which might have resulted from the symbolic action of adorning the ‘silent’ armbands, expressive of opposition to the Nation’s stance on the war in Vietnam and that such action did not cause any form of disruption.

Other subsequent case studies have also tackled the issue of student free speech rights, inclusive of the ruling in the case of Bethel School District V. Fraser, where the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against school authorities, claiming violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, after delivering a speech laden with sexual innuendo in support of a classmate who was vying for a student body post. Fraser won, but the school appealed the ruling twice, before the Supreme Court upheld the suspension, noting that the school’s policy did not violate the First Amendment.

Along the same line, the case of Hazelwood School District et al. V. Kuhlmeier et al dealt with the issue of freedom of speech relating to school-based publications. The United States Supreme Court held that a lower level of First Amendment protection came into play as concerns public school curricular student newspapers that are yet to be established as forums for student expression, as opposed to those established – by policy or practice – as forums for student expression.

In a related case, the ruling in Broussard V. School Board of Norfolk, where a student was disciplined for merely wearing a T-shirt with the message ‘Drugs Suck’, was made in favor of the school board, citing that although displaying a positive message, the word ‘suck’ was sexually-connoted and vulgar, hence disallowable in school.

Secondly, since time immemorial, the schooling system has been marred by instances of racial prejudice, which have however been nipped in the bud several times in the recent past. Cases in point include these; Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, et al.

The case dealt with the freedom of choice plans drafted to comply with a mandate in Brown II. A brief background of the case in question reveals that there had been an earlier dispute in the case of Brown V. Board of Education (1954), whereby the unconstitutionality of school segregation was held. A year later in Brown II, District Courts were authorized to enforce the principle, with directions that necessary steps be taken to make admittance to public schools non-discriminatory “with all deliberate speed”. It was subsequently held that New Kent County’s freedom of choice desegregation plan was not in compliance with the dictates of Brown V. Board of Education, hence unconstitutional.

A closely related case was that of Regents of the University of California V. Bakke (1978), largely considered a landmark decision on affirmative action, barring quota systems in college admissions, although affirming the constitutionality of affirmative action programs according to equal access to minorities.

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Also, in Gratz v. Bollinger, a United States Supreme Court case regarding the University of Michigan undergraduate affirmative action admissions policy, it was held that the point system in use at the University was unconstitutional by its being a tad too mechanistic. This system gave ‘under-represented’ ethnic groups, inclusive of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics, an automatic 20-point bonus on a scale that required 100-points to guarantee admission, out of possible 150-points, whereas a perfect SAT score was worth a meager 12-points.

Thirdly, matters of the religious construct in the educational sphere have proven contentious, with different perspectives coming under scrutiny. Precedent in this arena was set by the case in Lemon V. Kurtzman, (1971), whereby it was deliberated that law is regarded constitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when it has a legitimate secular purpose, not having the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and neither should it result in excessive entanglement of government and religion (Morgan, 1972).

In the same breath, the issue of school prayer is quite controversial in American jurisprudence, as evidenced in the case of Santa Fe Independent School District V. Doe (2000), which held that policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games directly violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, thus unconstitutional.

Yet another distinctive ruling was that in Lee V. Weisman (1992), whence it was concluded that including a clergy-led prayer within activities of graduation in public High Schools fundamentally violated the afore-mentioned Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Further emphasis is laid on the matter at hand in the case between Abington Township School District V. Schempp, a landmark ruling on the place of religion in public schools, largely condemned by select religious conservatives and applauded by those in favor of the constitutional separation of the State and Church. The United States Supreme Court made the declaration that organized Bible reading in public schools (in the United States) be regarded as unconstitutional.

Engel V. Vitale (1962) similarly held that, even if denominationally neutral and/or non-mandatory, government-directed prayer in public schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

As evidenced above, there lies a complex inter-relationship between the Constitution and Education; the lives of scores of public school students are affected by the same, trickling down to their civic education. First Amendment rights of Expression, albeit subject to relevant modification in particular schooling settings, have been applied severally in different contexts, including the permission of non-disruptive, yet unpopular, political speech, protection against censorship in libraries which might be motivated by disagreement with aired ideas, the provision of equal access – among both secular and religious student groups – to school facilities, and last but not least, the limitation of editorial control over school publications to actions relating to pedagogical inclinations.

Muir (1967) says that on the flipside, Fourth Amendment cases warrant ‘out of the blue’ drug tests and/or handbag/bag frisking, citing disciplinary, if not pedagogical reasons, along with deciphering lowered privacy expectations, in school-controlled settings, for children.

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It is thus safe to state, with a sober state of mind, that the schooling system can truly and adequately remain educational, yet simultaneously constitutional, in this day and age.


  1. Morgan, Richard E (1972). The Supreme Court and Religion. New York, Touchstone.
  2. Muir, William K., JR. (1967). Prayer in the Public Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Farish, Leah. (1998). The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Onslow Publishers, Inc.
  4. Evans, J. Edward (1990). Freedom of Speech. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, Inc.
  5. Philip B. Kurland, Brown v (1979). Board of Education Was the Beginning. Washington University Law Quarterly.
  6. Charles L. Black, Jr (1960).The Lawfulness of the Segregation Decisions, Yale Law Journal 69.

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