Some Schools Need a Lesson on Students’ Free Speech Rights

School is back in session, and that means school administrators may be back to surveilling students on social media and unjustly disciplining them for what they say on it.

We’ve seen both of these troubling trends before. And in today’s era of inspiring student activism, they may become all the more prevalent. Moreover, experience shows that discipline for student expression is not always applied evenhandedly, and can be invoked to silence youth of color and other marginalized students.

Fortunately, the First Amendment protects student speech. While public schools can regulate student speech that substantially disrupts the functioning of the school, as the Supreme Court held in the landmark 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, students do not lose their First Amendment rights simply by virtue of walking into school. Nor do they give up their right to speak out outside of school simply by virtue of being a student. To the contrary, outside of school, students enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else.

In the last five years, more than 100 public school districts and universities have hired companies to monitor the social media of their students. At least one district asked a surveillance company for alerts on any post mentioning “protest” or “walkout.” Another surveillance company offered to help public schools monitor “behavioral information” about specific individuals, including keeping tabs on their conversations with others.

Know Your Rights: Students’ Free Speech Rights

Much like other forms of surveillance, government monitoring of students’ social media accounts — which often includes surveillance of their lives outside of school — can have a disproportionate effect on people of color.

For example, after an Alabama town contracted with a consulting firm to watch students’ social media, more than 85 percent of the students expelled due to social media posts in a one-year period were students of color, even though more than 60 percent of the town’s population is white. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, one student was expelled for wearing a sweatshirt depicting her murdered father, and another was expelled for posting a photo of himself “holding too much money.”

Elsewhere, the ACLU has challenged school districts that disciplined students of color over photographs taken while dancing at home, with the schools alleging that these constituted “gang-related messages.”

This disproportionate effect is perhaps not surprising, given that some school officials around the country have disciplined students of color who, in an effort to criticize and push back against the racist speech of classmates, reposted it. One school in North Carolina suspended two Black students for reposting a video of a white classmate using a racial slur while criticizing gun control laws. Similarly, an Ohio school suspended two students for reposting a classmate’s racist remarks on Snapchat.

Schools are meant to teach the Constitution — and follow it. That means respecting equality and freedom of speech. And when students speak out on the political issues of the day, it should lead to engagement, not wrongheaded punishment.

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Anonymous

I think its time that you grow, because if what you say is true then I don't think you should have freedom of speech either! UR Wrong

Anonymous

Everyone has this right, and how parents raise their children is their decision it is ok to disagree with their parenting skills however to comment and claim that if a parent doesn't punish their child for speaking out that they are the cause of the country failing is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. I don't know if you are a parent or not, but for you to make these claims it is incredibly rude. you have just made a judgment on ALL parents who let their children voice themselves simply because you believe in a world where kids have no true meaning other than to grow up and THAN have an opinion. My father has taught me that as an American it doesn't matter whether I'm 87, 7 or 15 I have a right to an opinion and the right to voice it. And what makes me mad is when people make comments like this basically claiming that simply because you haven't lived for 18 years on this planet that you aren't valid or listened to. There are so many things that kids say about the world that is so true that adults don't even notice until it's pointed out. I'm 15 and you can say whatever you want about me but I have a valid opinion and if you aren't ready to hear it then maybe you're not the one who is old enough to understand. However, you're always welcome, good day.

Anonymous

when was this made

Anonymous

Is the ACLU doing anything about it? How about the students that were punished for saying racist things outside of school, are you defending them too? Personally i think these public schools need to keep being sued until they learn what children do outside of school and school functions is not their purview and they have zero authority to punish students for it.

Ellery

This is what is happening now in Hoover/Birmingham Alabama....there is change being presented and debated to code of conduct in response to a viral video of high school students drunk saying racist crap....now the school district hopes to make that speech made off campus and that ended up on instagram actionable "class III" offense, expelled or sent to an alternative school. Also the rule includes several issues not just race, but gender, and RELIGION...so from this if my high school teen blasphemes off campus in the form of art, satire, etc into the public sphere he/she could be expelled. I don't see much to be gained by going after high school students free speech off campus personally....

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