In Thomas v. Board of Education, Granville, 607 F.2d 1043 (2d Cir. 1979), a federal appeals court ruled that school authorities violated the First Amendment rights of free speech and press when they suspended several students for creating an underground student newspaper that was produced largely off-campus. The appeals court explained that the “arm of [school] authority does not reach beyond the schoolhouse gate.”
Students made satirical paper mainly off-campus
Four students—Donna Thomas, John Tiedeman, David Jones, and Richard Williams—produced Hard Times, a satirical paper modeled after National Lampoon, which lampooned various aspects of school and contained articles on sexual subjects. The students created the paper mainly off-campus; however, they occasionally composed an article at school, sought the advice of a teacher, and stored some copies of the paper in that teacher’s closet. The students sold copies of the paper at a nearby off-campus store.
Students sued school for punishing them
The president of the school board learned of the paper and expressed her displeasure to school officials.The officials suspended the students, segregated them from other students during study hall periods, and took other punitive measures. The students responded by suing in federal court alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights. The federal court ruled in favor of school officials, believing that under the seminal Supreme Court student-speech decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) the school officials reasonably forecast that the students’ paper would disrupt school activities.
Circuit Court upheld students’ activity
On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in an opinion written by Chief Judge Irving R. Kaufman, who emphasized that nearly all of the student expression at issue “was deliberately designed to take place beyond the schoolhouse gate.” He characterized any on-campus connection with the newspaper as “de minimis.”
“We may not permit school administrators to seek approval of the community-at-large by punishing students for expression that took place off school property,” he wrote. “When school officials are authorized only to punish student speech on school property, the student is free to speak his mind when the school day ends.”
Judge Jon O. Newman wrote a concurring opinion because he agreed that the student expression was “essentially off-campus activity.” He explained that school officials do have the power to regulate on-campus student speech that is indecent.
Supreme Court denied review
The school board petitioned for Supreme Court review, which the Court denied in February 1980 in Granville Central School District v. Thomas (79-1021).
The decision has been cited in nearly sixty subsequent court decisions and even more law review articles. Courts and commentators often have cited the Thomas decision in analyzing whether school officials can punish students for their online expression.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.