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Working With Your School Committee:
A Student Guide

Appendix Three: Selected Laws and Case Notes

Massachusetts General Law Chapter 71, Sections 82-86

S82. Public secondary schools; right of students to freedom of expression; limitations; definitions. The right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the Commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school. Freedom of expression shall include without limitations, the rights and responsibilities of students, collectively and individually, (a) to express their views through speech and symbols, (b) to write, publish and disseminate their views, (c) to assemble peaceably on school property for the purpose of expressing their opinions. Any assembly planned by students during regularly scheduled school hours shall be held only at time and place approved in advance by the school principal or his degree.

No expression made by students in the exercise of such rights shall be held responsible in any civil or criminal action for any expression made or published by the students.

Section 82 of M.G.L. Chapter 71 was removed from the "local option" clause in l987.

Case Notes

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Com. Sch. Dist. 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Two students who had worn black arm bands to school to publicize their objection to the Vietnam conflict and were subsequently suspended sought an injunction restraining the respondent school officials and members of the board of directors of their school district from further disciplining them.

The United States Supreme Court recognized the duty of school authorities to punish student conduct which materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of other students. However, there were no demonstrable facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast such disruptions in this situation. Therefore, the court held that the school's prohibition of the wearing of armbands to school and suspension of students who refused to remove them was an unconstitutional denial of students' rights of freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Riseman v. School Committee of the City of Quincy 439 F.2d 148 (1st Cir. 1971). Plaintiff was a junior high student who was denied permission by the Quincy School Committee to distribute, on school property and during school hours, political leaflets pertaining to United States involvement in Vietnam. He requested the court to prohibit enforcement of the school committee regulation prohibiting the use of school facilities for advertising or promoting the interests of any community or non-school agency or organization without school committee approval.

The Court of Appeals noted that the rule was devised for purposes of controlling in-school advertising or promotional efforts of organizations. Therefore, the court held that the regulation, as applied to First Amendment activities by the student-plaintiff, was vague and did not reflect any effort to minimize the adverse effect of prior restraint.

More recently, in 1988, the Supreme Court decided the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The case involved a decision by a high school principal to delete two articles from the school newspaper written and edited by the school journalism class. The principal was concerned that the articles, one about teen pregnancy and another about the impact of divorce on students, might violate people's privacy or be inappropriate for younger students in the school. The student editors brought suit, claiming that the principal and the school had violated their First Amendment right to free expression. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the public school and its officials, and it held that schools may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student expression in school-sponsored activities, including school-sponsored newspapers, as long as their actions remain "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

However, in 1988, the Massachusetts Legislature approved and the Governor signed into law Chapter 137, "An Act Further Regulating the Rights of Student to Free Expression in Cities and Towns." This law makes Section 82 (below) mandatory in every public secondary school in Massachusetts. Before Chapter 137 was enacted, the students' rights law applied only to cities and towns that accepted it.

For the purpose of this section and sections eighty-two to eighty-five, inclusive, the word "student" shall mean any person attending a public secondary school in the Commonwealth. The word "school official" shall mean any member or employee of the local school committee.

S83. Dress and appearance of students protected. School officials shall not abridge the rights of students as to personal dress and appearance except if such officials determine that such personal dress and appearance violate reasonable standards of health, safety and cleanliness (Added by St.1974, c.670)

Case Notes

In the 1994 case Pyle v. South Hadley, concerning whether or not Coed Naked T-shirts qualified as part of the school dress code, the judge decided that the section of the dress code prohibiting obscene, lewd and vulgar material did not violate the Constitution. The prohibition applies to the manner in which the views are expressed, not to what the statements state to the viewers themselves. However, a section that prohibits clothing directed to harass an individual was found to be unconstitutional because it was aimed directly at the content of the speech, not at its potential for disruption.

Richards v. Thurston 304 F. Supp. 449 (D.Mass., 1969), aff'd, 424 F.2d 1281 (1st Cir. 1970). A high school senior was suspended because he refused to cut his shoulder-length hair. There was no written school regulation governing hair length, but students were aware of the principal's policy that unusually long hair on male students was not permitted.

The court held that the student's suspension was improper and ordered that he be readmitted because (1) the right to have one's hair any length one desires is a basic liberty, which cannot be curtailed without a strong showing of need; (2) in the absence of a statute or regulation or an issue of health or safety, a school cannot suspend a student because he has long hair; and (3) compelling conformity to conventional standards of appearance is not a justifiable part of the educational process.

Bishop v. Cermanaro 355 F. Supp. 1269(D.Mass. 1973). Plaintiff, a male student at Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School, brought this action to enjoin defendants (school superintendent, director, and school committee chairman and members) from excluding him from the school because the length of his hair violated the school's "hair code."

The court held that the "hair code" could be justified on the ground that the neat appearance and grooming of the student body enhances the image of the school and its students among prospective employers, thereby furthering the employment opportunities of the students upon graduation. This justification for the code bears a rational relation to a legitimate interest in maintaining a vocational school.

S84. Discipline of students matters unrelated to school-sponsored activities prohibited. No student shall be suspended, expelled, or otherwise disciplined on account of marriage, pregnancy, parenthood or for conduct which is not connected with any school-sponsored activities; provided, however, that in the case of a pregnant student, the school committee may require that the student be under the supervision of a physician.

Case Note

Ordway v. Hargraves 323 F. Supp. 1155 (D. Mass. 1971). A pregnant, unmarried high school student excluded from regular school classes and given home instruction sued for readmission.

The court ordered immediate readmission of the student on an equal basis with other students because (1) there was no showing of danger to her physical or mental health resultant from her attending classes during regular school hours; (2) nor was there any valid educational reason, or any other reason, which would justify her receiving educational treatment which was not equal to that given all other students in her class.

S85. Guidelines implementing sections 82 to 84; rules and regulations; adoption; emergencies; procedures. The board of education may adopt guidelines to implement the provisions of sections eighty-two to eighty- four, inclusive. School committees shall adopt rules and regulations consistent with guidelines of the board of education and provisions of sections eighty-two-eighty-four inclusive. The rules and regulations to be made by such school officials shall be established only after notice to public school students and after a public hearing at which students' views shall be presented and shall be taken into consideration by such officials. Said rules and regulations shall provide that, notwithstanding the existence of the rights and responsibilities described in the three preceding sections, school committees or school officials may take necessary action in cases of emergency. Students may petition for a hearing, to be held as soon as practicable after such emergency, as to whether such rules and regulations shall be revoked or modified.

S86. Acceptance of sections 83 to 85 The provisions of sections eighty-two to eighty-five, inclusive, shall apply only to cities and towns which accept the same.

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Last Updated: January 1, 2000
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