Curriculum and Free Speech

Activities in the classroom are supervised by faculty and are designed to teach or convey particular knowledge or skills to students. Consequently, school boards and educators must have broad control over the approval of the materials used. In view of school board responsibilities in this respect, state laws have almost uniformly required the obedience of subordinate employees, including the classroom teacher, to follow the board’s curriculum choices and related mandates. Teachers certainly enjoy a degree of academic freedom and First Amendment rights; these rights do not give teachers the authority to disregard the curriculum directives of the board. In sum, the courts have declared that individual teachers may not simply teach what they please.

A school board authority almost always extends to classroom expression. Thus, public schools may limit classroom speech to promote certain educational goals. This also touches on the use of public school facilities by groups that promote a certain agenda or otherwise exercise their right to free speech. Although a school may occasionally open a classroom for other purposes, there is no doubt that during instructional periods the classrooms are reserved for other intended purposes: the teaching of a particular course for credit. In such periods, classroom speech and expression may be reasonably restricted.

As we have seen, a school’s curriculum includes actual instruction as well as classroom materials. For example, textbooks, lab equipment, and other routine instructional materials are used to support a school’s curriculum. These are subject to the school board’s control. Additionally, displays in or around the classroom or the school may be curricular in nature. These materials are therefore subject to broad control by school authorities.

Inside Curriculum and Free Speech