Can Schools Discipline Students for Protesting?

Students around the country are turning the heartbreaking school shooting in Parkland, Florida, into an inspiring and exemplary push for legislative change. In the last few days, many people have asked whether schools can discipline students for speaking out. The short answer? It depends on when, where, and how the students decide to express themselves.

Plans for coordinated student walkouts have been making national news and have already engendered disciplinary threats from some school administrators. Since the law in virtually all jurisdictions requires students to go to school, schools can typically discipline students for missing class, even if they’re doing so to participate in a protest or otherwise express themselves. But what the school can’t do is discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don’t support the views behind the protest. In other words, any disciplinary action for walking out cannot be a response to the content of the protest.

mytubethumbplay
%3Ciframe%20width%3D%22560%22%20height%3D%22315%22%20thumb%3D%22%2Ffiles%2Fvid18-studentprotesttraining-webthumb-560x315.jpg%22%20src%3D%22https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FQ6ghXMtooV8%3Fautoplay%3D1%26version%3D3%22%20frameborder%3D%220%22%20allow%3D%22autoplay%3B%20encrypted-media%22%20allowfullscreen%3D%22%22%3E%3C%2Fiframe%3E
Privacy statement. This embed will serve content from youtube.com.

Before deciding whether to join a political walkout, students might want to find out what policies govern discipline for absences in their state, school district, and their particular school so that they’re aware of the potential consequences. They should also know that in addition to walkouts, there are actions they can take for which schools cannot legally impose punishment.

We hope schools recognize that even when they are within their right to discipline students for protests, that doesn’t always mean they should.

For example, during school hours, students cannot be punished for speaking out unless their speech disrupts the functioning of the school. This is because — as the Supreme Court recognized in a 1969 decision upholding the right of Mary Beth Tinker to wear an armband to school in protest of the Vietnam War — students do not lose their constitutional rights “at the schoolhouse gate.” This makes sense given the educational purpose of our school system. As the court held in an earlier decision finding that students cannot be obligated to salute the flag, students’ speech rights must be “scrupulously” protected if we are to have any hope of “educating the young for citizenship” and teaching students not to “discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”

While what qualifies as “disruptive” will vary by context, courts have typically held that students have the right to wear expressive clothing that doesn’t target fellow students or disrupt class. In addition to Tinker, the ACLU has successfully represented students asserting their rights to wear clothing expressing anti-abortion views, support for the LGBT community, and even opposition to the ACLU itself.

Outside of school, students enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else. This means that students are likely to be most protected if they organize, protest, and advocate off campus and outside of school hours. Some schools have attempted to extend their power to punish students even for off-campus, online expression. While courts have differed on the constitutionality of such punishments, the ACLU has challenged such overreach.

Student Resources

We clearly have a lot to learn from the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their peers nationwide. Their activism inspires confidence in the future of our democracy, and their schools should be proud of them. We hope those schools recognize that even when they are within their right to discipline students for protests, that doesn’t always mean they should.

View comments (163)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

Very informative info I can rely to my kids. Thanks!

Anonymous

I hope you relay it to them as well. I hope you also tell them to proofread their work before they turn it in.

Anonymous

learn how to spell dumb boi

Anonymous

Someone made a mistake - a typing mistake. Can we not allow for that and just be a little generous and kind?

Anonymous

At least this article recognizes that first amendment rights are not without limitation. During school hours, schools can absolutely prohibit class walkouts contrary to what I’ve seen some Cobb County parents promoting and saying. Protest on your own time......don’t turn school campuses into political venues or protest locations. One parent in Cobb supporting the walkout keeps asking why she didn’t go to law school. Here’s my advice stop asking the question and just get on with doing it. I did.

Anonymous

I never knew about my rights as a student. Two years ago in the 2016 election and last year for an NHS officer election, my school threatened students who posted their opinions on Twitter in dissatisfaction. They were labelled racists and cyber bullies, and even brought in the same room as a private investigator to be interrogated. Most of the students were self-incriminated, did not know their rights, and just nodded their heads. I know because I was one of them, and we were scapegoated for any dissent against the students to cover up the money deals a certain family directed into administration so that their daughters in the school could voice their opinions without backlash and take any officer position, whether in be in NHS, to take tests ahead of time, to get the connections in other club campus organizations, etc.

Anonymous

The biggest issue, school administration, and teachers lean right will have the issue with the student with different viewpoints.

Anonymous

The comments criticizing the misspelling / typo was incredibly inappropriate, especially the one which resorted to name-calling. Those comments do nothing productive, while the opening comment stated the usefulness of the information posted in the article. The fact that people have time and energy to waste bullying others is absurd.

Michael

Just wondering if the ACLU protects Religious Rights of Students to wear a Jesus shirt or have a Lunch Time Bible Study that the Principle says no to while other groups like the LGBTQ meet in a separate classroom for lunch and the Chess Club also meets during Lunch along with 15 other groups. Students told that having a Christian Bible Study would be offensive to Muslims even though no Muslims attend the 7th and 8th Grade School.....Is this something you would represent also?

Kate Kent

Michael,
Know your rights. Your principal is wrong. ACLU brought this issue to court, maybe in the in the 1970's. Supreme Court already decided this issue. Students can wear whatever on their T-shirts, long as it does not incite violence, or otherwise disrupt learning. Just because you are a minor, your do not 'check your free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate' says SCOTUS.

Pages

Stay Informed