Do Students Have the Right to Protest?

For the second time in two months, thousands of students across the country walked out of school on Friday as part of a National School Walkout to protest congressional inaction on gun control.

Adults are quick to criticize teens and young adults. Rude, disrespectful, overly entitled, lazy, technology obsessed, and ignorant about the real world are common complaints I’ve heard.

But teens and young adults can change the world. Seriously. The Vietnam War protests of the ’60s? The anti-apartheid protests of the ’70s? The Tiananmen Square protest in 1989? All changed the course of human history and all led and organized by teens and young adults.

We don’t know what impact the latest round of student protests will have on history, though hopefully, at a minimum, these kids will at least remember to vote when they turn 18.

Let’s say your high schooler wants to participate in a walkout, but their school has chosen not excuse students who will miss class to participate. Do students have a right to protest when they should be in class? Are schools allowed to punish students who participate?

The answer to both questions is yes, sort of.

Schools can punish students, just not for expressing their political views.

It’s completely legal for a school district to punish students for skipping class. Of course it is. We have truancy laws to make sure kids are in school. The punishment for unexcused absences varies from school to school and from district to district. But every school and every district has a clear policy about the consequences for an unexcused absence.

It’s also completely legal for students to express their political beliefs during school hours. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators cannot punish students merely for expressing their political views. The case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School, involved a 13-year-old who was suspended for wearing a black arm band to school. School officials can, however, discipline students if their speech or actions cause a “material” or “substantial” disruption to school functions.

So how does this all apply if your high schooler wants to participate in a walkout demanding action on gun reform?

Is a mass walkout a “material” or “substantial” disruption in the school? Does the walkout make it impossible for the school staff to do their jobs or teachers to continue their lessons with those students who choose to stay in class? School officials get to make that call.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the walkout is a “material” or “substantial” disruption in the school. What punishment is appropriate? Check the school policy. What’s the usual punishment for skipping class? That’s the appropriate punishment. Anything more would be punishing students for their political views, which would be a violation of their constitutional rights.

So what advice do I have for you if you have a high schooler who wants to participate in a walkout? First, encourage them to work with school officials to excuse the absence and to help them plan the walkout (and this is one of those times when you as a parent should also get involved and contact school officials and other parents). Second, check the school’s policy regarding unexcused absences and make sure the punishment is something both you and your high schooler can live with.

Do you have a high schooler participating in walkouts? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Disclaimer: This website is made available for educational purposes only as well as to give general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this website you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Copyright © 2018 by Siobhán Fitzpatrick Kratovil. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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