On March 14 at 10 a.m. local time, students across the country are planning to walk out of school for the National Student Walkout.
The date marks one month since the mass shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
In those four weeks following the tragedy, students in Arizona have already organized walkouts. Wednesday’s national walkout, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, has nearly 3,000 schools participating.
Parents, students and even school officials have been waiting for this day with anticipation and wondering: Can students be punished for walking out?
Students do have the right to protest. The landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines assures that. Students can participate in walkouts and qualify for protections under the First Amendment, but when it comes to free speech, it’s important to remember it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, generally, school officials can’t discipline student protesters unless the protests cause a disruption of school events or make it impossible for school officials to maintain order.
What is protected under First Amendment rights?
- Unpopular statements – Your school doesn't have to agree with your message. Students cannot be punished for having ideas or opinions.
- Printed materials and clothing with messages – If it isn’t profane or vulgar or violent, it’s protected.
- Protests during non-instructional time – The NCAC is encouraging students to take advantage of non-class time.
Can students leave campus?
The director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project and a lawyer advising school districts told CNN, schools can’t force students to stay on campus during a walkout but most schools probably hope they do so that they have control of the situation. Students should check with their school’s policies about leaving school grounds without permission before walking off campus.
Students should be aware that schools hold the right to issue unexcused absences (from class) or create an assignment for students participating in the walk out.
Can students be arrested?
Students can’t be arrested unless they break laws. Some things to keep in mind during protests: Protesters cannot block streets or entrances to schools.
What about private schools?
Private schools can forbid students from walking out or protesting. Students of private schools should check with their school’s policies or talk to an administrator to find out what is and isn’t allowed.
Schools can issue unexcused absences, assign extra work or discipline students who don’t adhere to school policy, but non-disruptive, organized protests and walkouts are protected.