Tinker and Viewpoint Discrimination
77 Pages Posted: 27 May 2008 Last revised: 24 Apr 2012
Date Written: March 19, 2009
Suppose that a school restricts student expression critical of homosexual conduct yet allows or actively supports student expression that promotes acceptance and tolerance of gays and lesbians. Can such a policy be justified if the anti-gay speech disrupts the educational environment of the school while the pro-gay speech does not? Or does the differential treatment of anti-gay and pro-gay speech constitute unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination because it distorts the marketplace of ideas within the school? Can viewpoint discrimination ever be justified on the ground that anti-gay speech invades the rights of others under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969)? These were among the questions debated by Judges Reinhardt and Kozinski in the Ninth Circuit's now-vacated panel opinion in Harper v. Poway Unified School District, 445 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006), but their significance to the law of student speech is quite general. Courts are increasingly becoming concerned with the question of whether Tinker allows viewpoint-based restrictions of student speech, but so far jurists have not reached agreement on this question or even on the simpler question of what counts as viewpoint discrimination. This article attempts to clarify the emerging debate about the permissibility of viewpoint discrimination under Tinker and proposes modifications to the Tinker framework that would enable courts to deal more fruitfully with charges that school officials have imposed viewpoint-based restrictions on student speech.
I argue that we should think of viewpoint discrimination as purposeful restriction of expression on the basis of governmental disagreement with the message. Tinker must be understood to bar purposeful viewpoint discrimination, but the conclusion that a school speech restriction constitutes purposeful viewpoint discrimination will come at the end rather than at the beginning of constitutional analysis. A school will never announce that it has restricted student speech on the basis of disagreement with the message; instead, it will claim that it has regulated speech to prevent harm. And this is something that schools (and the state more generally) may sometimes do - at least with sufficient justification. Tinker obviously contemplates the regulation of speech where necessary to prevent two specific sorts of harms - disruption to the school's mission and violations of the rights of other students - and so must require courts to distinguish between school speech restrictions based on impermissible ideological purposes and those based on the permissible purposes of preventing disruptions or violations of student rights. Tinker's substantial disruption test, I contend, should primarily be understood as a mechanism for helping courts to smoke out these impermissible purposes.
Keywords: Tinker, student speech, viewpoint, First Amendment, school law, substantial disruption, gay harassment, Harper v. Poway, impermissible purpose, education law
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