You don't shed your First Amendment rights - freedom of speech or expression - at the schoolhouse door. In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida in February, thousands of students across the country are planning walkout demonstrations to protest American gun laws. While these acts of civil disobedience may be effective and well-intentioned, it is best to know how these actions are related to your First Amendment rights and whether or not they may lead to school discipline.
The First Amendment Does Not Consider a "Walkout" Protected Speech
- The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly. However, these rights are not absolute in that a person is not given the right to assemble anywhere or say anything. Though limitations on free speech are very narrow, they do exist.
- Speech rights of students may be further restricted. School officials are required to create a safe learning environment. Disruptive acts of civil disobedience may reasonably be interpreted as interfering with the education of other students, and therefore certain acts may not be allowed.
- This does not mean that all speech and assembly rights are discontinued on school grounds. On the contrary, several Supreme Court cases uphold speech rights for students, such as wearing political symbols (Tinker v. Des Moines) and the right to abstain from reciting the pledge of allegiance (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette).
- However, a school walkout is not considered the same type of speech as wearing a political slogan. A school may take corrective action if you miss school without an excused absence, even if you were participating in a political protest.
Your School May Punish You if You Participate in a Walkout
- Students are required to be at school except for an excused absence. Leaving school grounds without permission may lead to discipline by school officials.
- However, schools may not discipline students more harshly because they are participating in a political protest. For example, if the normal repercussion for missing school without an excused absence is detention and a student receives a suspension for missing school for participating in a walkout, this may be a First Amendment violation.
Should you participate in these walkouts?
- It is not up to the ACLU to determine whether or not you should participate in a political act of civil disobedience. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that he would accept “the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community.” It is up to every individual person to evaluate the potential benefits and consequences to an act of civil disobedience, such as a walkout.
- This information should not be interpreted as a promise of ACLU legal representation or that our organization will intercede on your behalf. If you feel that your constitutional rights have been violated in some way, you are welcome to file a complaint on our website.
For more information about students' rights, please read "Student Rights at School: Six Things You Need to Know" on the ACLU Speak Freely Blog.