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Testing the Limits: Your Teen's Legal Rights

Free Speech

Everyone knows free speech has its limits. According to a Gallup poll, 75% of teens agree they shouldn't include foul language in class assignments. But sparks can fly when schools clamp down on the open exchange of ideas and opinions. Last year in Fallbrook, California, students sued the administration when it refused to let them publish in the school paper an article that criticized an abstinence-only sex education assembly—and won. After the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to take a San Diego school to court for barring a sixth-grader's presentation on gay politician Harvey Milk, officials backed down and let her proceed, with no restrictions.

Students don't leave their free speech rights "at the schoolhouse gate," according to the landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling. But censorship is allowed if what kids say—or how they say it—is disruptive, threatens safety or infringes on the rights of others. "Often kids get into trouble saying things they think are funny," says Jacobs. A Pennsylvania jury awarded a $500,000 judgment against a middle schooler whose math teacher became distraught when the student, who created a website called, morphed her face into Hitler's and jokingly solicited donations for a hit man to kill her.

Lesson plan: Preach the importance of civil discourse. "Your child has a right to his opinion, but without being disrespectful," says Bradley. Encourage him to think about the impact of his words: Would anyone find them offensive? How would he feel if someone spoke about him like that? Schools are less likely to step in when kids express political or religious views, which are protected by the courts, unless they hurt or condemn others. And if your child is using hate speech, "take action fast," says Bradley. "Make it clear that you and the federal courts find derogatory language unacceptable."