Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)

In 1935, two Jehovah's Witness students, 12-year-old Lillian Gobitis and her 10-year-old brother William were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag in their Minersville, Pennsylvania school.  Saluting the flag violated their religious beliefs because it was a form of "idolatry" or worship of "graven images."

After both the federal district and appeals court decided in the students' favor, the US Supreme Court in its 1940 decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis ruled 8-1 in favor of the school.   The court held that instilling patriotism was a legitimate goal and that schools should train students in "a common feeling for a common country." It was not the role of the court to interfere with educational policy or to be "the school board for the country."

Read the decision:

Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)

A year after the US Supreme Court struck down prayer in schools in the case Engel v. Vitale, it re-visited the issue of religion in schools in Abington School District v. Schempp Pennsylvania state law had sought to get around the Court's opposition to prayer in school by requiring that "at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day."  The verses were from the New Testament. At Abington Senior High School , which the Schempp children attended, the verses were read by students and broadcast to all classrooms through the intercommunications system, followed by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance. Although students were not required to be present when the verses were read, if they left the room and stood outside in the hall, they would miss public announcements and could also be seen as misfits by their peers.    

The US Supreme Court ruled on behalf of the Schempp family, which had challenged the practice on the grounds that it violated the separation of Church and State.  It declared that "the very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.  One's right to...freedom of worship...and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections...In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality."

>> Learn what it was like to be a student plaintiff in this case from Ellery Schempp.
>> Listen to the oral arguments:
>> Read the decision:

The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in 2004 that a Pennsylvania law requiring schools to inform parents when their children do not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance was a violation of students' First Amendment rights.  The court said the requirement represented "viewpoint discrimination," since it singled out students who chose not to participate in the Pledge and that it chilled student expression.  

(The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has jurisdiction over Delaware , New Jersey , and the Virgin Islands as well as Pennsylvania . )

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in a 2-1 split decision ruled in February 2010 that the Blue Mountain School District did not violate the rights of a middle school student who was suspended for 10 days for creating a parody profile of her principal. The parody, which accused the principal of “hitting on students,” was created at her home but reportedly created a "buzz" in the school. It did not mention him by name, but featured his photo and position. In its ruling, the federal district court found that although the online profile did not cause substantial disruption at the school, it contained the kind of lewd and vulgar speech that was denied First Amendment protections by the US Supreme Court in its Bethel School District v. Fraser decision. According to lower court, the fact that the profile was created off campus did not mean the student could not be punished, since “the lewd and vulgar off-campus speech had an effect on-campus.”  The Appeals Court agreed that school officials are not left powerless to discipline a student "simply because the disruption to the learning environment originates from a computer located off campus."

In a nearly identical case, a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled unanimously in February 2010 that the Hermitage School District had violated a student’s First Amendment rights for punishing him for creating a mock MySpace profile of his school principal. When school officials found out who had created the profile, they placed him in an alternative education program.  The lower court judge had said that the punishment was unconstitutional because the student created the profile off campus and it did not cause a “substantial disruption” at the school. The Appeals Court agreed and stated that it would be "an unseemly and dangerous precedent to allow the state in the guise of school authorities to reach into a child's home and control his/her actions there to the same extent that they can control that child when he/she participates in school sponsored activities."


A Tunkhannock Area High School teacher confiscated a student’s cell phone for making a call on campus in January 2009.  Subsequently, the student was called to the Principal’s office where she was suspended for three days and told that her phone had been turned over to the district attorney for containing “sexts” or explicit photos of herself. The district attorney then threatened to charge her with child pornography unless the student attended a re-education course on sexual violence and victimization. A year later, the student and ACLU successfully sued the school and the district attorney.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided that the district attorney “may not coerce parents into permitting him to impose on their children his ideas of morality and gender roles.” Additionally, it ruled that various assignments that were required in the re-education program were in violation of the student’s First Amendment freedom against compelled speech.

In 2007, Hillary Transue, a student who had never been in any kind of trouble, was sentenced by Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr. to three months in a juvenile detention center for creating a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her Wilkes-Barre High School. She was one of an estimated 5,000 students sent to two privately-run juvenile detention facilities by Judge Ciavarella and his colleague, Michael Conahan. Conahan had secured a contract to keep the centers full and the two received kickbacks amounting to more than 2.5 million for keeping a stream of juveniles headed into detention. In March 2009 the judges were sentenced to 87 months in prison as part of a plea agreement.

Zachariah Paul, a student at Franklin Regional High School, was suspended for ten days and given five Saturday morning detentions for sending an off campus email to his friends that listed the "Top Ten" reasons he was "always so pissed off" and made fun of a coach at the school.  After going to court to get the suspensions reversed, a federal judge in 2001 awarded him $20,000 in damages and attorney's fees. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2002 ruled in favor of the Bethlehem Area School District which had expelled a 14-year-old for setting up a "Teacher Sux" web site that contained many offensive descriptions of teachers at his middle school.   A jury had ordered his parents to pay $500,000 for invading the privacy of a teacher was so upset by the site she took medical leave. The ACLU got him reinstated in school and won a $90,000 settlement from the school district.  Latour also received a $60,000 settlement from the police.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania in March 2009 issued a temporary restraining order blocking child pornography charges against three teenage girls who appeared semi nude in photos that were distributed by cell phone in their high school. In Pennsylvania, it is a felony to have or distribute pictures of provocatively exposed minors. The girls, who are students at Tunkhannock High School, did not distribute the pictures and the students who did distribute them have not been charged.


West Shore School District has reversed its course in response to a lawsuit, and dropped its ban on a student wearing a T-shirt containing the message "Abortion is not healthcare."  The student had maintained that his shirt caused no disruption in the school.  The two sides have until early in 2010 to come to a final agreement or the case will go to trial.

In 2005, a federal lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of Anthony Latour, a 14-year-old rap artist who had been expelled from the Riverside Beaver School District for rap music he wrote at home and posted on the Internet.  He was expelled after being arrested for songs which were considered "terroristic threats" because they described acts of violence.  The student won monetary damages when the case was settled.


Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania was sued by a Harriton High School student Blake Robbins and his family in February 2010 and Jalil Hasan and his family in July, 2010 for using webcams equipped in school-issued MacBook computers to spy on students at home, the websites they visited, and excerpts of their online chats. Robbins found out about the spying when the assistant principal alleged that he was engaging in improper behavior at home and showed photos to prove it. An investigation revealed that the software captured nearly 58,000 images in the last two years, including photos of Robbins and Hasan at their respective homes, sleeping and changing clothes. The two class-action suits are currently pending in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

In the late 1990s, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the random searches of students' lockers at Harborcreek High School by school officials and police using drug-sniffing dogs.  The court said students "have limited expectation of privacy while in the school environment" and there was "reasonable suspicion" that a search would reveal drugs.  The court reversed a lower court opinion that found the reasons for the search of the lockers were impermissibly vague. 

In the mid 1990s a federal district court judge ruled that the rights of six students had been violated when they were strip-searched in a junior high school in New Castle .  The searches took place after it was reported that the plaintiffs had been seen smoking marijuana earlier in the day.  No drugs were found when the students were asked to remove their clothing.