First Amendment rights for student protesters

February 27, 2018 ACSA Writer
ACSA is dedicated providing administrators with expertise and content on the most relevant issues in the world of education, including student protests and school walkouts. You can download the PDF version of this content, from the National Coalition Against Censorship, here.  

Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Students have a constitutional right to participate in non-disruptive protests during the school day. This means that school officials cannot retaliate against or discipline student protesters unless the protests cause, or are reasonably expected to cause, the disruption of school events or make it impossible for school officials to maintain order. Missing class is usually punishable. But punishments cannot be harsher because you missed class to protest or because of your political beliefs. 

Protected:

Unpopular statements

Or statements that school officials disagree with. You cannot be disciplined for the content of your protest alone.

Protests OUTSIDE school

You are free to organize and protest off campus. Don’t block access to school. Learn the restrictions on where you can protest on your school’s property.

Printed materials and clothing with messages

As long as it isn’t vulgar, likely to disrupt school operations or incite violence (like gang symbols) and
doesn’t encourage illegal drug use.

Protests during non-instructional time

Take advantage of breaks and non-class time. Don’t disrupt teaching.

TIP: Make your goals clear + know your school’s policies. Communicate with school officials, clarify your intent to remain peaceful and facilitate a dialogue with those who disagree with you

Risky:

Advocating violence

Just don’t. You can’t encourage unlawful activity,” including illegal drug use.

“Vulgar, offensive or rude” language

What “offensive” means is subjective, but keep in mind that profanity and vulgar imagery have been legally accepted as reasons to shut down student speech.

Disruption to school activities

This is the big one. It’s also subjective and there is no real legal consensus. Know this: Officials can discipline students for substantial disruptions of school activities. A disruptive walkout can be punished.

The US has a long and honored tradition of people who knew that their civil disobedience had a price and were willing to pay it to advance their cause. For some, this is the cost of social change. Either way, it’s important to know your rights.

Note: Private schools are allowed to establish their own speech and demonstration codes. This guide is not intended as individualized legal advice and it may not stay completely accurate forever. The law is sometimes interpreted differently in different regions of the country. 

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