Over the past several weeks, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have seized the national spotlight and joined a proud tradition of student-led protest movements. From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, students across the country and here in Indiana have raised their voices to challenge the status quo and dismantle systems of oppression.
Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. In America, students do not lose their constitutional rights “at the schoolhouse gate.” Students have the right to speak out, distribute flyers and petitions, and wear clothing that expresses a viewpoint — as long as they don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate school policies.
Public school policies must be content-neutral. Public schools can establish general rules and policies that are unrelated to the specific opinion being expressed. So, for example, a school can establish a dress code that prohibits students from wearing hats — because that rule is not based on what the hats say — but it cannot prohibit them from wearing pro-NRA hats or ACLU hats.
Public schools can discipline students for missing class – but they can’t punish student protesters more harshly than they otherwise would. The law in most places requires students to go to school, so schools can discipline students for missing class. But what schools can’t do is discipline students more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind their action. Students participating in a walk-out to protest gun violence cannot be treated differently than if they were missing class for some other reason. School policies vary, so find out the rules for your school and district and ask how school administrators plan to apply them.
School administrators: just because schools are within their rights to discipline students, that doesn’t mean they should. We commend the school leaders who are working to ensure that students can participate in these protests and make their voices heard without risking punishment, even if walk-out participants may be in technical violation of school rules. To cultivate informed citizens who care about their communities and speak truth to power, school leaders should take this opportunity to encourage this spirit of activism and civic purpose, not punish it.
- Students are allowed to speak freely on social media. Students’ right to free speech extends to social media content that is unrelated to school and posted off-campus outside of school hours.