Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (2009)

In February 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the parents of a child who faced harassment on a school bus could sue Barnstable School District for gender discrimination and civil rights violations. Their daughter, a kindergartner in Hyannis, had been repeatedly bullied by a third-grade boy, and told to lift up her skirt and pull down her underpants. After her parents alerted school officials, they suggested putting the girl on another bus rather than taking any action against the boy. The Court made it clear that teachers and school officials who fail to protect the civil rights of their students could be held personally liable under Title IX (which bars gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds) and under the civil rights law known as Section 1983.

In 1970, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the right of a 17-year-old student from Marlboro, Massachusetts to wear his hair as he saw fit.  Bob Richards had been suspended for violating a school policy against "unusually long hair."  The court found the policy unconstitutional, and stated that Richard's hair was protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which "establishes a sphere of personal liberty for every individual" as long as that liberty did not interfere with the rights of others.  The court stated that forcing students to adopt "conventional standards of appearance" is not a "justifiable part of the educational process."

Two years later, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in the opposite way, meaning that students in some states have more protection in terms of their personal appearance in public schools than students in other states (see Texas ). 

(The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has jurisdiction in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico as well as Massachusetts. )

In 1993, Jeff and Jonathan Pyle, two high school students in South Hadley , Massachusetts , were sent home for wearing "Coed Naked" and other T-shirts that the administration thought were "vulgar," "lewd," and "demeaning to women." They brought a lawsuit against their school, arguing that schools cannot censor student speech simply because it may be "offensive" to others.

They won an important victory at the trial court level. The judge ruled that schools cannot practice "viewpoint discrimination." Picking which viewpoints will and will not be allowed was unconstitutional.  But the judge also ruled that school administrators may censor speech that they regard as "vulgar" or "lewd."  

The brothers appealed this part of the decision, and eventually ended up before the state Supreme Judicial Court .  In 1996, that court ruled unanimously that the state's Student Free Expression Act protects shirts which teachers consider to be "vulgar," but which do not disrupt the educational process.  As a result, Massachusetts now has the broadest student free speech law in the country. 

Read the Student Free Expression Act: link
Meet Jeff Pyle: link

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in 1997 in a case from Lexington High School that student journalists have the right to refuse ads submitted to their publications.  The student editors of the yearbook and newspaper refused to accept an ad encouraging sexual abstinence, and were sued in federal court.  The court agreed that the students could refuse the ad since they, and not school officials, made content decisions.  The appeals court decision was based in part on the Massachusetts Student Free Expression Act. 

(The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has jurisdiction in Maine , Rhode Island , New Hampshire and Puerto Rico as well as Massachusetts . )

After the ACLU intervened, Holliston High School agreed to end its punishment of two female students who had displayed protest signs during the annual talent show.  The students had been suspended from classes and barred from the school prom and graduation for protesting against what they regarded as the unfair expulsion of two other students.


Two students at Hudson High School advertised their new Conservative Club by putting up posters listing the Club website address. The website had several links to videos showing brutal beheadings. When the principal heard about the links, he had the posters removed and the students were informed that the school thought it was inappropriate to expose other students to the type of violence shown in the videos. The students then went to federal district court, alleging that the school had censored their speech. In 2007, the court ruled that the students had a First Amendment right to put the website address on their publicity materials, and that the links on the website did not create a disruption with the running of the school.

In 2001, the highest court in Massachusetts (the Supreme Judicial Court ) upheld the expulsion of a 12-year-old Worcester student for two drawings he made of himself shooting his teacher.  The court decided that the picture could be considered a criminal act because of the "climate of apprehension" caused by the Columbine and other school shootings.

After the ACLU in 2000 challenged the suspension of a Boston Latin Academy student who frightened an English teacher with the vivid horror story he wrote as part of a writing assignment, the suspension was overturned.  The ACLU pointed out that the suspension violated the Student Free Expression Act, which gives students in Massachusetts the broadest free speech rights in the country.  

Six students from Westfield High School received one-day internal suspensions in 2003 after they distributed 500 candy canes containing a message about the birth of Jesus. The school principal had denied them permission to distribute the candy canes because of a school policy barring the distribution of non school and non curricular material.  The students won a federal lawsuit that maintained their First Amendment rights had been violated.

In the mid 1990s, Adam Field, a student from Greater New Bedford Regional Vocation Technical High School was suspended from school because his hair measured more than 2 and ½ inches below his ear. The Massachusetts Superior Court barred his exclusion from school and held that the school's "good grooming provision" was unconstitutional. The court invoked the US Appeals Court for the First Circuit ruling in the 1970 case Richard v. Thurston to uphold Field's liberty interest to wear his hair as he chose.

In the mid 1990s, the Supreme Judicial Court , the highest court in Massachusetts , upheld the condom-distribution program established by Falmouth School district for students in grades 7-12. Under the plan, students could obtain condoms from the nurse or vending machines located in restrooms.  This was the first time a state high court had upheld a condom-distribution program without requiring parental consent. The US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in the case.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in 2001 against the search of a Boston high school student who was targeted because of his truant behavior.  Marijuana was found in his shoe.  The court said there was no reasonable suspicion to search the student and that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  According to the court, "hunches and unparticularized suspicion do not constitute reasonable grounds for the search of a student."


A 15-year-old high school freshman Phoebe Prince committed suicide after months of relentless school bullying and cyber bullying from fellow classmates at South Hadley High School. She had recently moved from Ireland, and was reportedly bullied because of her brief relationships with a senior football player and another male student. Prior to her death, the student’s mother had spoken to several staff members about the incidents, and numerous bystanders, including at least four students and two faculty members, apparently intervened or reported the harassment to administrators. However, the administration took no action and claimed that the school officials had been unaware of the bullying. In March of 2010, six teenagers from the high school were indicted on felony charges including statutory rape, criminal harassment, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, disturbing a school assembly, and stalking. Spurred on by this incident, a anti-bullying legislation was signed into Massachusetts law on May 3, 2010, and a “Phoebe’s Law” has been proposed as a national anti-bullying legislation.


In 2010, a case of alleged "sexual harassment" was settled when the family of a Brockton 6-year-old first-grader received a $180,000 settlement. School officials had suspended the then-six year old and accused him of sexual harassment for touching the skin at the waistband of a girl's pants. The family said it was horseplay and maintained that the girl had touched the boy first. The settlement ordered the superintended to erase all school records of the sexual harassment allegation and implement training on sexual harassment policy. The parents have since moved the boy to a different school. 

A lawsuit was brought against the Barnstable school district by the parents of a kindergarten student, alleging that she was sexually harassed by a third grader two or three times a week when she rode the bus, and the school did nothing about it.  When they started driving her to school, the harassment continued in the school hallways.  The parents accused the school of violating Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972 which states that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."  The US Supreme Court has ruled that sexual harassment by one student of another could qualify as a Title IX violation if the school system was "deliberately indifferent" to it.  In the Barnstable case, the federal district court ruled in 2006 that because no further act of sexual harassment occurred after the parents gave the school notice of it, the school district could not be held liable.