How Does The First Amendment Apply To Public Schools?

A DeKalb County parent is trying to figure out how the First Amendment applies to students in public schools after his son was suspended for protesting his school’s principal.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

A DeKalb County parent is trying to figure out how that applies to students in public schools after his son was suspended for protesting his school’s principal.

Getting ‘The Call’

Russell Brooks got a phone call two weeks ago from Chamblee Charter High School, where his son is a freshman.

“I got a call from the assistant principal saying he had a sticker at school with the message ‘Fire Braaten,’ Braaten being the principal of the school, and that he was going to be suspended for four days for being disrespectful and causing a disturbance at the school,” Brooks says.

The principal, Rebecca Braaten, has her critics and supporters. But are students who don’t think she’s doing a good job within their rights to wear stickers at school calling for her firing?

“A school can have a Code of Conduct,” says Page Pate, an Atlanta attorney and WABE’s legal analyst. “They can obviously punish students who are disruptive, who interfere with the course of instruction at the school and who may cause harm to other students, teachers, things of that nature. All of those restrictions are perfectly legal, perfectly constitutional. Where I think the school may run into trouble is when they’re trying to restrict what is purely speech.”

The DeKalb County School District says the incident disrupted the school environment, which is a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. Brooks says the school told him his son caused a “disruption” by handing out stickers to other students, which administrators then had to track down.

The district wouldn’t confirm that.

Pate says if that’s true, it’s probably not a strong defense.

“Simply because they decided to try to track down the stickers and remove them … that was their decision,” Pate says. “That was not disruptive had they not taken that action. The speech itself was not disruptive.”

What’s Next?

The school reduced the punishment to a one-day in-school suspension. Even though his son has already served the suspension, Brooks is considering legal action to have it expunged from his record.

“[The suspension] still seems wrong to me,” Brooks says. “What he did is free speech. He silently and passively expressed his opinion about something that was going on at the school, something that students at the school were concerned about, the leadership of the school and the way the school was going.”

The DeKalb County School District said it can’t comment in detail due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The district’s full statement is below:

“The DeKalb County School District supports the constitutional right of its students to freedom of speech, but it also requires that such exercises do not disrupt or degrade the learning environment. When that standard is violated, the district reviews each transgression on its own merits and uses the DCSD Student Code of Conduct as its guide in taking corrective action.

“Three students at Chamblee Charter High School were found to have violated that standard and were held accountable. The violations were considered disruptions of the school environment per the DCSD Student Code of Conduct.”