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The Last Word: Courts of Appeals Cases You Should Know

For these teen-relevant issues, the U.S. Courts of Appeals’ decisions were the last word.

Of the approximately 7,000 cases that are appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States every year, about 100 are decided by the highest court in the land. In the rest of these cases, the decisions made by judges on the 13 Circuit Courts of Appeals are the last word. 

Glik v. Cunniffe (2011)

On the Street: Recording Public Officials in Public

A private citizen has the right to record video and audio of public officials in a public place.  This case, which involved filming police making an arrest in a public park, was the first case in which a U.S. Court of Appeals explicitly ruled that private citizens have a right to film police officers in public spaces.  The Court of Appeals also ruled that the right to film public officials was subject to reasonable limitations with respect to time, place, and manner in which the recording is made.

Decided by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more.

United States v. One Book Called Ulysses (1933)

Reading Assignment: Ulysses is Not Obscene

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court decision that offensive language in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses was not obscene.  The trial court opinion, written by U.S. District Court Judge John M. Woolsey, is widely known even today as an erudite affirmation of free expression in literature.

Decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more

Hawk v. Easton Area School District (2013)

Middle School Health Advocates Have First Amendment Rights, Too

When the Supreme Court of the United States denied a final appeal from a Pennsylvania school district, the ruling of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was the last word in what has become known as the “I Heart Boobies” case. In August, 2013 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court decision that protected the free speech rights of two middle school girls who wore the popular “I Heart Boobies (Keep a Breast)” bracelets to promote breast cancer awareness at their school for several weeks.

Decided by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more.

Dettmer v. Landon (1986)

Religious Rituals in Prison Have Limits

Although the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized Wicca as a religion, it ruled that a Virginia prisoner did not have a right, in the practice of this religion, to possess ritual objects, including knives, which are contraband in a prison setting. The court found that the decision to prohibit the prisoner from possessing the items did not discriminate against him on the basis of his unconventional religious beliefs. This case was the first time a court recognized Wicca as a religion.

Decided by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more

Dixon v. Alabama (1961)

Students Can’t Be Expelled Without Due Process

State-funded colleges and universities cannot expel a student without due process. Alabama State College (now Alabama State University), an historically black college in Montgomery, expelled for unspecified reasons six students. The students had participated in Civil Rights demonstrations. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a public college cannot expel students without at least minimal due process. The case was decided by Judges John Minor Wisdom, Richard Rives, and Benjamin Franklin Cameron. Thurgood Marshall was among the counsel for the students.

Decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more

Susan B. Anthony List; Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes v. Steven Driehaus (2016)

First Amendment Protects False Statements in Political Advertising

Ohio’s laws that make political false statements illegal are unconstitutional.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Ohio laws are content-based restrictions on protected political speech and they are too broad. The issue was brought to a trial court in 2010 by then-Congressman Steven Driehaus who claimed that the Susan B. Anthony List violated Ohio’s political false-statements law when it issued a news release accusing him of endorsing “taxpayer-funded abortion” by voting for the Affordable Care Act.

Decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more

Hosty v. Carter (2005)

School Administrators May Decide if College Newspaper Content is Appropriate

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that college newspapers were subject to the same school administration controls and limitations as high school newspapers under Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988). After the university newspaper criticized the Governors State University administration, Dean Patricia Carter told the editor that future editions could not be published until approved by the school administration despite the policy that the newspaper staff would “determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.”

Decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more.

Frosty Treats, Inc. v. Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc. (2005)

It’s Okay for this Ice Cream Truck Brand to be Used in a Violent Video Game

In this trademark case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that Frosty Treats, the name of one of the largest ice cream truck franchises in the country, was neither distinctive enough nor famous enough to receive protection against being used in a violent video game.

Decided by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more.

B.W.A. v. Farmington R-7 School District (2009)

In This Instance, School Officials Can Ban the Confederate Flag

Farmington, Missouri, school officials were justified in suspending students for wearing Confederate flag clothing in what was considered a racially tense school environment following incidents of violence and degradation targeting African American students.

Decided by Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more. Read the First Amendment Center Commentary.

Mendez, et al v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al (1947)

Segregating Students by Ethnicity is Unconstitutional

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, held that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students into separate schools from those attended by the majority student population was unconstitutional.  It was the first ruling in the United States in favor of desegregation.  Several organizations joined the case as amicus curiae, including the NAACP, represented by Thurgood Marshall.

Decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more

United States of America v. Timothy James McVeigh (1998)

Courts of Appeals Upholds a Bomber’s Death Penalty Sentence

Timothy J. McVeigh was tried, convicted and sentenced to death on eleven counts stemming from the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The bombing resulted in the deaths of 168 people.  This case is an example of how an appellate court reviews a death penalty case.

Decided by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more

Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County (1987)

Textbook Review: Particular Book Does Not Promote or Inhibit Religious Beliefs

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that schools in Mobile County, Alabama could use textbooks that some parents believed promoted secular humanism as a religion. The Court found that the textbooks -- which presented the values of tolerance, self-respect, and logical decision making -- neither unconstitutionally advanced a nontheistic religion nor inhibited theistic religion.

Decided by the Eleventh Circuit. Learn more

Action for Children’s Television v. Federal Communications Commission (1995)

Restricting Some TV and Radio Content to Certain Hours is Not Unconstitutional

In an en banc ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the government has a compelling interest in protecting children under the age of 18 from exposure to indecent broadcasts. The Court ruled that restricting television and radio broadcasting of indecent material to the hours between midnight and 6:00 a.m. is not unconstitutional.  It decided that such a policy would not unduly burden the First Amendment.

Decided by the Circuit for the District of Columbia. Learn more.