Recent news has shown students marching against violence that has occurred in their schools and against the actions of legislators working opposite their interests. Many schools have also threatened punishment for students from other locations who decide to join the movement.
Depending on the nature of the school and the status of the student, these schools may be opening themselves to legal action should they crack down on student protests. We’ll explain why in this article.
Tinker v. Des Moines is the core case that defined the rights of students to protest. A group of students wore armbands in protest of the Vietnam War and were punished by the school system for it. The students won the case and it was enshrined by legal precedent that students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the door of the school.
However, there were some limitations laid down. The speech presented could not be disruptive to the operation of the school. Examples of disruptive speech are lewd and profane messages or messages supporting activities that are illegal such as drug use. Notably, political speech or controversial speech is protected.
Additionally, because public schools are an extension of government, this ruling does not apply to private schools. Private schools have much more leeway in what they can restrict. Plus, for students who do not enjoy full citizenship, they may not have access to First Amendment rights and are unable to sue on these grounds.
But isn’t walking out of school a disruptive activity? Yes, it is. Unlike the armband-wearing students in Tinker v. Des Moines, leaving school is disruptive. Where the law would come in is if the administration of a particular school decided to punish the protest action in a way that was more strict than what is outlined in the school rules for a student walking out for no reason at all. That would be seen as a crackdown on the type of speech the protests were exhibiting.
Most older students these days are issued a student handbook with all of the rules so they can’t plead ignorance, but these rule lists can also be a potent piece of evidence should an administration go overboard with punishment over this particular issue. The problem of gun violence is an extremely touchy one in this country and it’s quite possible that a school district might go overboard. Furthermore, most students are unaware of their protest rights and schools do use that ignorance to coerce students into compliance.
Another dimension is what students do when school is not in session and they are off school property. In these situations, the schools have no grounds to punish what a student does. However, some schools demand access to student’s social media accounts and other communication tools. If a student is speaking politically on these forums and is discriminated against or punished in school for what they wrote, that can open up liability. The school would have to prove that the messages posted would cause enough disruption among the student population that they couldn’t perform their duties.
If you are a student and you decide to walk off campus to protest, know that you may face school punishment. However, your right to protest is part of your rights as a citizen and America has a long history of civil disobedience. If you are an administrator, it is prudent to know your legal limits on punishing students who protest.