New York

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

In 1962 the Supreme Court decided the case of Engel v. Vitale challenging organized prayer in schools.  The case had been brought by parents of ten students at New Hyde Park High School in New York , who had to start school each day saying aloud the following prayer:  "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."

They argued that the state law requiring this prayer was a violation of the Establishment  clause of the First Amendment and the separation of Church and State because it furthered the religious beliefs of one particular group.    

A New York State Court had ruled in favor of prayer in schools as long as the schools did not compel students to join in over their or parental objections.  But the Supreme Court disagreed, and stated that prayer in public schools "breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government."

Listen to the oral argument:
Read the decision:

Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico

After a "Book Review Committee" composed of parents and school staff proposed removing certain books from library shelves in the Island Trees Union Free School District , 17-year-old Steven Pico and four other students went to court charging that they were being denied their First Amendment rights.  In 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled that because school libraries provide an "environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students," officials could not "remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."  But authorities do have "significant discretion" to decide what goes in the libraries in the first place. 

Among the books slated for removal were Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, and Pin Thomas' Down these Mean Streets.  The Committee wanted some books – such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five and Richard Wright's Black Boy to be made available to student only if they had their parents' approval.   Some members of the School Board who objected to these and other books called them "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy."

Listen to the oral argument:
Read the decision:

Good News Club v. Milford Central School
Milford Central School refused to allow a private Christian organization, the Good News Club, to use its facilities for weekly club meetings on the grounds that this would violate the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Club filed suit charging that they had been denied their free speech rights. In 2001, the US Supreme Court held by 6-3 that the school was wrong to bar the Club and that its free speech rights had been violated.

The US Supreme Court in 2007 refused to consider the case of a sixth-grader at Thompson Middle School who had been suspended for 35 days because of a fictional horror story he wrote for class entitled "Costume Party."  The story included the names of some students and violent sexually explicit material.  A federal district court and the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit both upheld the suspension. 

In 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Weedsport Central School District had the right to suspend an eighth-grade student who used his parents’ computer to send friends an instant message containing a violent image calling for the death of a teacher. Originally, the student was suspended for only five days, after school officials and a police investigator concluded it was meant as a joke. But the school board later suspended him for one semester on the grounds that it was threatening, a violation of the school rules and could have caused substantial disruption in the school. The Appeals Court agreed with the school on the grounds that once the message was made known to the teacher and other school officials, it “would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment.”

(The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has jurisdiction over Connecticut and Vermont as well as New York).


In 2009 the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a lower court finding that Valley Central School District did not volate the First Amendment rights of a fifth grader when it suspended him for six days after he submitted an in-class assignment which school officials thought contained a threat of violence.  The Appeals Court found that the school officials had no evidence that the expression (submitted in crayon) would "materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school"  and no reason to suspend a 10 year old with no prior discipinary record. 

In 2009, a federal district court in New York ruled that Ithaca City school officials did not violate students’ free speech when they refused to allow the student newspaper to run a sexually explicit cartoon accompanying an article about sex education. The court concluded that the cartoon could be rejected as lewd, vulgar, indecent or plainly offensive speech and that the student newspaper constituted school-sponsored speech. It also held that school officials could prohibit the distribution on school grounds of an independent student newspaper containing the cartoon.

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in 2003 on behalf of high school girls who were suspended for going to a "hooky party" and then being barred from the school until they underwent highly intrusive medical exams and turned over test results to school officials.


A gay high school student sued the Mohawk Central School District for ignoring and failing to take measures against physical assaults, repeated bullying, and threats.  According to the ACLU, “school districts nationwide have the responsibility to protect children from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender non-conformity. No child should live in fear of going to school.” They reached a settlement in March of 2010, including compensations, payment for therapy sessions for the student, implementation of harassment policy reviews and training, and required annual reports on the district’s progress.