Classroom Walk-Outs and School Protests

Everything you need to know whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, school administrator, or lawyer

Students

It depends. If you attend a private school, the First Amendment will not protect you from any restrictions your school places on your right to protest. (The First Amendment prevents the government from punishing you for your speech. It doesn’t prevent a private organization for punishing you for your speech.)

If you attend a public school, you do have First Amendment rights, even at school. However, your rights are more limited than the rights of adults. Your school can punish you for taking part in a protest if it causes substantial disruption of school activities, or if it invades the rights of others.

This standard was established by the Supreme Court in a case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The students in that case wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, and were suspended for refusing to take them off. The Supreme Court found that their First Amendment rights had been violated, because the armbands were considered a non-disruptive expression of their political point of view.

You may decide that you are willing to incur those penalties, but remember to consider alternative methods of advocacy and protest as well.  Sometimes civil disobedience–challenging the rules on matters of conscience and policy–is justifiable.  But sometimes there are several different ways to achieve the same goal.

This is may be a fire code violation–contact the proper authorities if you are concerned.

You may not be able to vote–but you have the First Amendment rights to speak, assemble, and petition.

Organizing marches and rallies can raise public awareness for your cause. Doing so off-campus and outside of school hours will be protected by the First Amendment.  Reach out and collaborate with as many people as possible–parents, teachers, school administrators, and members of your community–in order to have the greatest possible impact.

The right to petition means the right to ask for the laws that you want and speak out against the ones that you don’t want.  Contact your elected officials and tell them what you think.   Letters, phone calls, and personal interactions at town hall meetings have more of an impact than emails and tweets.  Contact your Senators and members of Congress, since they’re elected to serve you.  Don’t forget that state and local officials also make laws that impact you.  The My Reps website allows you to find and contact your federal, state, county, and local elected officials.  This guide by  former Congressional staffer Emily Ellsworth contains some very helpful tips on what you should say and do.

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Parents

First, you may want to reach out to the school administrators and/or the school board and make your own voice heard on how you feel about this policy.

In giving advice or instructions to your children, you should consider the potential penalties but also discuss the underlying issues behind the walk-out.  You may wish to help your child with alternative forms of activism–for instance, by contacting your legislators on their behalf.  (After all, you have a vote.)

This could also be an opportunity to work collectively with other parents and your school leaders to organize a community discussion about the political issues, and also the on the the larger civic lessons surrounding free speech, protest, and representative democracy.

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Teachers

If you’re caught between students motivated to join in protests, marches or other kinds of activities that are under the general heading of “free expression” [that is actual speech or expressive conduct] and your administration’s view of such actions as disruptive and therefore prohibited, perhaps you can strike a compromise between these groups  – a task that teachers’ lounge chatter daily confirms. How about leading your students in discussion about the history of protest in America, or the explore the various sides of what Supreme Court justices wrote in the “Tinker” court case.

While the 7-2 majority on the court supported student free speech rights – with some caveats – one justice wrote that the decision would usher in an entirely new era of “permissiveness” that it seems would wreck American public schools. To engage your students in a discussion, you can find review the basic information about the case and use this discussion guide from Newseum Education.

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School Administrators

You first face the decision of whether to forbid the walk-out at all or to simply deal with the disruption caused by a walk-out.  (This decision might depend on whether you are considering the disruption caused by a 17-minute walkout versus that of an all-day walkout).  You then face the decision of whether or not to punish the participants.  Note that a punishment must be proportional to the misconduct committed.  Furthermore, if you decide to mark truant the students who participate in a walk-out, keep in mind that the punishment for them cannot be any more severe than the punishment for students who are truant for another reason.

Simply locking students into their classrooms in order to keep them from leaving may well be a fire code violation. Such a “lockdown” lacks the urgent “true threat” justification that a court might accept with regard to an active, dangerous incident in your building or near your location.

You should also consider that there may be another approach altogether. Given that we live in an age where there is much concern that young people don’t understand the Constitution or support free speech, punishing them for exercising it, even if the even if the Tinker decision gives school administrators that discretion, seems counterproductive. In the words of law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, “Schools cannot teach the importance of the First Amendment and simultaneously not follow it.”

This could be a teaching moment for your students and your community.  In cooperation with students, parents, and teachers, you may wish to organize a town hall meeting in which all sides surrounding the political issue or debate are head.  Newseum Ed’s Teaching Controversial Topics instruction guide provides tools and tips for educators on leading classroom conversations about sensitive topics.  

You can also use this as an opportunity to educate your students about how the First Amendment works and how far their rights extend.  You can start by introducing students to what the limits of free speech are, both inside of school and out of it, with discussion materials from Newseum Ed about what counts as a violation of the First Amendment and what you can and can’t say in school.

 

 

 

 

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Lawyers

Yes, students do possess First Amendment rights at school.   The U.S. Supreme Court famously wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  However, the Court cautioned that students’ rights must be considered “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.”

That is an excellent question.  The determination of what constitutes a “substantial disruption” is decided on a case-by-case basis.  The interruption of classes, threats to teachers, racially harassing conduct and significant race-based tension, fights or violent behavior on school grounds, the flooding of angry calls from parents, the canceling of school events, and emotional distress suffered by teachers have all been considered substantial disruptions within the meaning of the Tinker standard.

No, courts have stated that school officials do not have to wait for an actual disruption or riot.  The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explained in Karp v. Becken (1973): “The First Amendment does not require school officials to wait until disruption actually occurs before they may act.”

This where the “reasonable forecast” part of the standard comes in play.   In Dodd v. Rambis (S.D. 1981), a federal district court judge reasoned that students’ distribution of leaflets urging fellow students to engage in another student walkout was substantially disruptive to school activities.  The judge explained: “The First Amendment does not require school officials to forestall action until disruption of the educational system actually occurs. Indeed, this is the very essence of the forecast rule.”

For example, in many cases involving Confederate flag garb, courts have reasoned that a significant amount of race-based tension at the school is enough to satisfy the “reasonable forecast of substantial” disruption standard.

Usually, courts find that student walkouts are substantially disruptive under the Tinker standard.  They focus on the fact that classes and class schedules are disrupted and the students who remain in school are distracted.

Furthermore, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Corales v. Bennett (2009) reasoned that a high school’s anti-truancy policy was a “content neutral rule that furthers an important interest unrelated to the suppression of expression.”  The appeals court explained that the anti-truancy rule “furthers several substantial government interests, including enforcing compulsory education, keeping minors safe from the influences of the street, maximizing school funding based on attendance  and limiting potential liability for negligent failure to supervise a truant student properly.”

The other part of the Tinker test is sometimes called the “invasion of the rights” prong or “invasion of the rights of others” test.   The Court in Tinker explained that student speech is not protected by the First Amendment if it impinges on the rights of other students.  The Court has not explained the contours of this test.

However, lower courts have applied this test to prohibit student speech that sexually harasses other students or to student speech containing anti-gay themes.  For example, the 9th Circuit ruled in Harper v. Poway Unified School District (2006) that school officials could prohibit a student from wearing t-shirts containing Biblical verses condemning homosexuality. The appeals court explained: “Speech that attacks high school students who are members of minority groups that have historically been oppressed, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, and made to feel inferior, serves to injure and intimidate them, as well as to damage their sense of security and interfere with their opportunity to learn.”

Absolutely not.  U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel expressed this well years ago in Beussink v. Woodland IV School District (E.D. Mo. 1998), writing “Disliking or being upset by the content of a student’s speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting student speech under Tinker.

In a case out of Tennessee, Giles County public school officials contended that a t-shirt with pro-gay and lesbian themes would be disruptive to the school. A review federal district court judge disagreed in Young v. Giles County (M.D. Tenn. 2015), writing that “[m]erely invoking the word ‘disruption’ falls far short of the showing that Tinker requires.”

No. The Court in Tinker declared that “undifferitienated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to over the right to freedom of expression.”   School officials must have some evidence or a reasoned judgment that speech will cause problems before they engage in blanket censorship.

The Supreme Court in Tinker developed a test for evaluating whether school officials can censor student expression without violating the First Amendment.   The test is known as the “substantial disruption” test.  Under this test, school officials may prohibit student speech if they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a material interference or substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.

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