Scores of young people are raising their voices against gun violence on Wednesday, March 14, by planning a National School Walkout. But some school districts, like Needville near Houston, TX, have already threatened to slap students with suspension if they participate in a protest or walkout during school hours. Which might make you wonder: What rights do I really have at school?
The American Civil Liberties Union — which has been fighting on students' behalf in districts like Needville, and others from Nevada to New Jersey — has put together a Q&A (and a video) on free speech in schools so that students know their rights ahead of the walkouts. The superintendent in Prince William County, VA, has already walked back on a message threatening to punish students for protesting after the Virginia ACLU sent him a letter.
Here's everything you need to know about your right to protest.
100%. This is your first amendment right, which you don't lose just because you're at school. "You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school — as long as you don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school’s content-neutral policies," according to the ACLU. If a school disagrees with your position, that doesn't necessarily mean it's "disruptive." What does "content-neutral" mean? Your school can prohibit you from wearing, say, a hat — but not specifically a pink pussyhat (or an NRA hat).
Because of a landmark Supreme Court case called Tinker v. Des Moines, ACLU attorney Vera Eidelman wrote, punishing students for exercising their first amendment rights is illegal and unconstitutional. The 1969 decision upheld the right of Mary Beth Tinker to wear an armband to school signaling her protest of the Vietnam War.
Could I still be punished for participating in a walkout?
Yes. "Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class. But what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action," the organization says. Look up your district's individual rules to make sure you're not being treated differently for participating in a walkout.
What if I'm protesting off school grounds?
You have the same rights as any American citizen to protest and speak out, says the ACLU. "This means you’re likely to be most protected if you organize, protest, and advocate for your views off campus and outside of school hours."
Are my rights different depending on whether I go to public or private school?
Unfortunately, there is not as much protection when it comes to students' free speech at private schools since private schools aren't run by the government. "That said, we hope that private schools will still allow students the leeway to express themselves and engage politically in the issues of the day," says the ACLU.
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