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.

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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.

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Tara

Perfect comment for this time, You have clearly understood disruptive, divisive discredity and false blame to cover and distract truth.

Anonymous

Sorry Dr. Timothy Leary. You don’t get to comment, since you died in 1996!

Anonymous

Are you writing from the great beyond? Bc Dr Timothy Leary died in 1996

Anonymous

...coming from the guy that was tripping on acid and calling it "research"!

FLORIDALIMEY

Timothy Leary's dead! He's on the outside looking in.

Good wishes to all demonstrators. The NRA must be sidelined and discredited.

Anonymous

Aren’t you dead? Also... walking 10 miles is good exercise and teachers can turn these protests into class projects. If they’re savvy that is...

Raymond Thomas ...

You’re on the outside looking in.

Anonymous

Maybe for you but there were over 100 students that protested the treatment of their teachers at the school in my community. There was no 'goofing off' as you call it. I followed them and listened to them. These students were passionate about having fair treatment for teachers. It was a great example of civil disobedience and freedom of speech. I guess it doesn't say much for you if you did it to just get out of doing school work - don't overgeneralize!

Andrew Hentz

You should not judge other students by your own tendencies. Students who exercise their Constitutional Right to protest are doing what good, true Americans do. They are endeavoring to make their voices heard. They are endeavoring to change the direction of our Country. They are endeavoring to grow. You, on the other hand, are letting everyone know what you have always been and, evidently, always will be, a fool.

Tami Martine

Perhaps for some. But for most, this is a way of showing opinion and the belief that they can affect change. What these kids are learning from this experience is far advanced from what we can teach in a classroom. Our students, way up here in Ohio, are scared and some traumatized. They are emotional. Some cry or act out. I would not take this way of working through the trauma away from them. They know that if a shooter invades, there is not much they can do. This is students taking some control, an emotionally healthy way of coping.

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