Protests Are a Teachable Moment in Civic Participation

March 13, 2018

NASHVILLE – In anticipation of student-led school walkouts to protest gun violence this week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today sent a letter to every school district in the state calling on school directors to ensure that students' First Amendment rights are protected.

"Students don't lose their right to free speech when they walk in the door to their schools, and we will be monitoring to ensure that students' First Amendment rights are protected during tomorrow's walkouts," said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. "We applaud those school administrators who have already taken steps to protect their students' First Amendment rights and to ensure that students can exercise their right to protest safely."

Thousands of students across the nation have planned walkouts to protest gun violence and call for policy change in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

ACLU-TN's letter reminds school superintendents that the federal and state constitutions protect political speech. According to ACLU-TN's letter, "Students cannot be considered disruptive for wearing t-shirts, armbands, or other clothes or accessories that bear political viewpoints – nor face discipline as a result – just because someone may disagree with their particular viewpoint. [Additionally,] students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or vulgar."

ACLU-TN's letter further explains that the Constitution forbids disciplining students more harshly for politically-motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.

"We recognize that this is a difficult time for schools but also that this is an important opportunity to teach students about civic engagement and civil discourse," said Weinberg. "School administrators owe it to their students to examine their reaction to young peoples' self-expression and to ask how they can help build on this moment of protest as an educational experience."

A copy of the letter sent today is available here.

Students can learn more about their rights in ACLU-TN's "Know Your Rights: A Guide for Public School Students in Tennessee" and ACLU's "Students' Rights: Speech, Walkouts, and Other Protests."

Any student who feels like his or her free speech rights are being violated should contact ACLU-TN using this form.

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