The Legal Meaning of Freedom of Speech

By Sebastian Godinez

In the second part of my editorial series, I’m going to touch a bit on the legal side of freedom of speech. I will make a concerted effort on my part not to descend into a lot of legalese and complicated Latin phrases. In addressing the legal aspect of freedom of speech, I’d like to address two specific Supreme Court cases. The cases were decided in the ’70s and ’80s. And yet, they have had significant impacts on the meaning of freedom of speech.

The first, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, dealt with a high school newspaper. The newspaper, which was student-founded, ran two articles that the principal deemed to be inappropriate and were subsequently pulled from the paper. Some students sued the school district under the doctrine of freedom of speech. To their dismay (and mine), the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the school had the authority to control the content of the newspaper because it was on school grounds and the school has a legitimate interest in restricting them. This set in motion an important precedent, that schools could effectively control the speech of their students. This editor strongly disagrees with the decision. While there are legitimate reasons to restrict speech of students, for the most part, there is no reason that public schools should have the authority to withhold articles written by students merely because they believe them to be controversial (if only the Supreme Court could have seen some of the stuff in my high school’s newspaper) or because they disagree with their content.

The other case addresses an entirely separate issue regarding freedom of speech. It deals with how far the definition of freedom of speech can be extended. A local neo-Nazi party wanted to hold a march in the town of Skokie, Illinois. The march was delayed by a local district court, and then by the Supreme Court of Illinois due to the marchers wearing swastikas and Nazi uniforms. Perhaps in desperation, the party appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. The Court eventually went to rule in favor of the neo-Nazis. They ordered that the case be reheard by the Illinois Supreme Court, which after hearing the case twice more, the march was allowed to occur, swastikas included. The case helped to set a precedent that even things that are considered offensive by people are not unconstitutional.

These two cases had large impacts on how the courts and to a certain extent, regular citizens, have come to view the freedom speech. While certain restrictions can be applied, there must be a valid reason for putting such restrictions. If there aren’t any, then the person, no matter what they are advocating, must be permitted if we are to say that we are a nation that truly values our right to freedom of speech.

Sebastian is a Junior Political Science Major

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