This guide represents the collective work of a number of principals and activity advisers across the nation. It was produced by AWSL/AWSP as a proactive response to the national school safety campaigns initiated by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Its purpose is to help school administrators and activity advisers support students choosing to invoke their right to participate in the democratic process through civic engagement. There is a delicate balancing act of ensuring students the right to peacefully demonstrate if they choose while also meeting a school’s paramount responsibility to maintain a safe and productive learning environment.
This guide is not a definitive answer or legal interpretation. Every school situation is different and the nuances of free speech rights are complex. Decide a course of action by considering school policies, student codes of conduct and local community needs. Going through the proper channels to seek advice from a school district’s legal counsel is a prudent step. Finally, local law enforcement may also be an appropriate resource to utilize.
The participation and empowerment of students as stakeholders in the decision-making process within a school within three general levels:
- Authority subject to approval: student elections, projects and events, Constitutional revisions, etc.
- Shared Authority: school climate, scheduling, fundraising, assemblies, etc.
- Input, not Authority: grades, discipline, credit requirement, curriculum, etc.
A planned and organized act allowing the expression of free speech while also maintaining a safe environment.
The refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest with legal consequences, often following the acts of protest for participating individuals.
Case Law on The Free Speech Right of Students: Tinker v. Des Moines
The Supreme Court ruling that guides the free speech rights of students is nearly 50 years old: Tinker v. Des Moines. In this ruling, the action of students wearing black armbands protesting the Vietnam War was deemed protected speech by the First Amendment. On February 24, 1969 the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court ruled the First Amendment applied to public schools, and school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process. The standard: Schools must prove a material and substantial disruption to the learning environment to censor student free speech.
Current National Campaigns on School Safety
March 14: #ENOUGH National School Walkout
An initiative organized by Empower: The Women’s March Youth Branch encouraging a 17 minute observance on the one month anniversary at 10:00 a.m. for the 17 people who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
March 24: #March4OurLives
A national call to action organized by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to take place in our nation’s capital.
April 20: #ENOUGH National School Walkout
An initiative organized by Empower: The Women’s March Youth Branch. Students are encouraged to wear the color orange on the day, which falls on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado when twelve students and one teacher were killed. A Change.org petition has set a goal of collecting 50,000 signatures on this day as well.