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 (164)
Read the Terms of Use

Andrew

Not to me, for myself and the people I love I will protest because I wish to not be gunned down in school. I respect your opinion but please respect my rights.

Anonymous

So Dr. Leary, you chose to do drugs instead!

Anonymous

You probably weren't being shot at.

Anonymous

I feel sorry for you that you never had anything you believed in strongly enough to protest for it

Patricia

I'm guessing you were never a sitting duck in school for a lunatic with an AR-15

M.F. Koziol

The extreme circumstances that led to national protests by students, are not a frivolous reaction. These kids lives are on the line because AR-15 rifles and other automatic weapons used in combat, USED IN COMBAT, are readily available and easier to purchase for a teenager than is a beer!

Anonymous

I'm a teacher in a low-income area in Florida and we have more behavior problems at my school than I could possibly describe. The walkout that happened at my school this week was the most organized, most serious, most well-behaved I have ever seen my students. It's not just goofing off or skipping class. Sure, there was one or two I to pull aside and tell them to either take it seriously or get back to class. There will always be a handful that will jump at the chance to be out of class, but those are the rare exceptions. These kids come to school scared about being murdered in their classrooms, they've seen it happen too many times, and now they're taking a stand for their lives and the lives of other kids just like them all over the country. It is not just goofing off and avoiding work. In a place where there a constantly fights and arguments, I saw dozens of kids holding hands in a circle for moments of silence. And let me tell you, silence doesn't exist at my school, but it did for those few minutes. These kids need to be taken seriously.

Daniel W.

Anonymous, you went to school to learn but you did not have to worry about being MURDERED IN YOUR CLASSROOM.

These kids are literally marching for their lives. How dare you question their motives or judge them for the situation they find themselves in? They and their parents are 100% better citizens than you.

Anonymous

That’s likely because you personally were a good-off.

Anonymous

That was then

Pages

Stay Informed