A former student at a Florida high school left 17 fatally injured and several in critical condition after opening fire with an AR-15-style rifle. This prompted many students to come together to implore Florida lawmakers to address existing lax gun laws. The motion to debate a bill banning assault weapons was recently denied by the Republican-dominated House. However, many students in Florida and nationwide continue to protest and advocate for stricter gun-control laws.
Although students are required by law to attend school, some students have been skipping school and walking out of class to protest gun violence. Coordinated student walkouts and peaceful protests have prompted threats of disciplinary measures from some school administrators. One school warned students that anyone who participates in a political protest will be suspended for three days. This has left many wondering whether schools can discipline students for protesting or whether students’ First Amendment rights protect them from punishment.
The First Amendment pertains to the reach of the federal and state government regarding regulation of free speech. Therefore, students in public schools are protected, while private school students are not afforded the same guarantees.
Schools may discipline students for missing class, even if they are expressing themselves in a protest, because students are required to attend school by law. However, schools may not discipline students because of the content of the protest. If administrators do not support the students’ views or the message of the protest, they may not discipline students more harshly for participating.
Students also have the right to express their political views in ways other than participating in a protest. Their First Amendment right to free speech allows students to speak out during school unless their speech disrupts the school’s ability to function. The landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines recognized this right, holding that a student could wear an armband to school protesting the Vietnam War. Forms of expression, like wearing clothing displaying controversial messages, are constitutionally protected, so long as the messages do not target individual students or disrupt class. Students who organize, protest, or advocate off campus and outside of school hours are typically protected from disciplinary action by the school.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently hosted a training session for student-activists explaining how First Amendment rights protect school protest. The ACLU lawyers who conducted the training advised that the punishment for an unexcused absence or walkout may not exceed the normal punishment for such behavior simply because students are making a political statement. The ACLU also recommended that students inquire about disciplinary consequences before engaging in a protest or walkout.
As a U.S. citizen, you have the right to free speech, religion, and peaceful demonstration. If you believe your First Amendment rights were violated, contact a Pennsylvania civil rights lawyer at Williams Cedar LLC. Our experienced attorneys can help you obtain the justice you deserve. Contact us online or call us at 215-557-0099 for a free confidential consultation. With offices located in Philadelphia and Haddonfield, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Berks County, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.