At the Very Apex: What the Supreme Court’s Student Speech Cases Have to Teach Us About a Constitutional Right to Education


Abstract

Background/Context:

In the 1973 Rodriguez decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not guarantee a substantive federal right to education. So far, this holding has not been adequately contextualized with many other statements the Court has made concerning the nature of education in the constitutional order. For example, since the 1969 Tinker decision, the Court has repeatedly justified curtailing student free speech by appealing to important educational goods, but the necessity of providing these educational goods has not been harmonized with the Court’s denial of a federal right to education.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question or Focus of Study:

Is the Court’s denial of a constitutional right to education consistent with how education is formulated in the Court’s other decisions related to education, particularly as found in the student speech cases?

Research Design:

A “holistic analysis” is employed to examine the Supreme Court decisions related to education. This approach interprets the different strands of the Court’s decisions related to education in light of one another (a “dialogic task”) and places the Court’s decisions into a larger context of educational thought (a “contextual task”). Specifically, with respect to the dialogic task, the focus is on reading the Court’s decisions related to a federal right to education in light of its jurisprudence related to student speech; with respect to the contextual task, the focus is on clarifying the Court’s statements related to educational goods by putting them into context with educational philosophy and theory.

Conclusions/Recommendations:

The holistic analysis leads to three observations. First, the authors find that the Supreme Court has endorsed a range of goods associated with education, including both public and private goods. Second, the Court has framed these educational goods as being closely associated with constitutional norms and the democratic order. Third, in the student speech cases, the Court has argued that these public and private educational goods are so critical that they justify the curtailment of student speech rights under the First Amendment. Bringing these observations together, it is concluded that, because education is being linked to constitutionally relevant private individual goods, and because the attainment of those goods is critical enough to overcome student speech rights, then the attainment of those goods should itself be considered a substantive, individual, constitutional right.