Students at public high schools and colleges are protected by the First Amendment while attending school, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“You do not lose your right to free speech just by walking into school,” Josh Bell, ACLU Center for Democracy Media Strategist, said in an email. “You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions and wear expressive clothing in school– as long as you don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school’s content-neutral policies.”
Bell said a “content-neutral policy” is a school’s policy that doesn’t relate to the message a student is expressing.
“For example, a school can prohibit you from wearing hats– because that rule is not based on what the hats say– but it can’t prohibit you from wearing only pink pussyhats or pro-NRA hats,” Bell said.
Bell said what is considered disruptive varies by context, but schools cannot prevent their students from speaking out simply because they disagree with a message or think it is controversial or in “bad taste.”
“Courts have upheld students’ rights to wear things like an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion, and a shirt supporting the LGBT community,” Bell said.
Instilling constitutional values, especially those concerning the value of free speech, should be a core mission of colleges and universities, ACLU’s website says.
“Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution,” the website says. “Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive.”
The website says college administrators cannot dictate which speakers students invite to campus on their own initiative.
“If a college or university usually allows students to use campus resources, such as auditoriums, to entertain guests, the school cannot withdraw those resources simply because students have invited a controversial speaker to campus,” the website says.
Bell said high schools are allowed to discipline students for participating in a walkout since most laws require students go to school. However, schools cannot discipline students more harshly for the political and/or controversial nature of their absence.
“The exact punishment you could face will vary by your state, school district and school,” Bell said. “Find out more by reading the policies of your school and school district.”
Students enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else when outside of school, Bell said.
“This means you’re likely to be most protected if you organize, protest and advocate for your views off campus and outside of school hours,” Bell said.
Gabriella DeBenedictis is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.