Student Advocacy and Freedom of Speech

Submitted by Tim Schwarz on Thu, 03/01/2018 - 12:00 PM

As part of advocacy to reduce the frequency of shootings in schools, students and others in the Metro Atlanta area and nationwide are organizing a school walkout on March 14, 2018. In the face of such plans, a school district in Texas announced a three day suspension for any students who walk out. Walkout organizers say students have a right to freedom of speech.

Free speech rights in schools are complicated. An advocacy march by members of the public is generally protected by the First Amendment. Whether school-related speech is protected depends on the disruptiveness of the speech. But the way to measure disruptiveness has not been defined in detail by the case law. Armbands protesting the Vietnam War were not excessively disruptive, but a student banner outside school that said ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ was too disruptive.

To make freedom of speech a more powerful tool to minimize harm to students, some considerations before and during a walkout:

  1. Parents can write letters excusing their students, especially if the letters reference the walkout or support freedom of speech. Such letter will make it slightly harder for a school district to argue that any punishment is for a neutral, non-speech basis.
  2. During the walkout, students should try to avoid the disruption of classes and minimize the number of school rules they violate - don’t block people from getting in or out, break anything, or similar.
  3. If reasonable, students should consider gathering near school property, but not on it.

On the practical level, using the right to free speech to avoid punishment will be procedurally difficult. If local districts attempt to punish, three-day out-of-school suspensions seem likely to be the typical response, which does not give a right to a discipline hearing and thus no place to formally assert a free speech defense. Even if a school disciplinary hearing is held, many tribunal hearing officers refuse to consider anything beyond weather the student violated the rule as accused. This is all very frustrating to me because I’ve never found suspension to be a tool for improving a student’s future.

It is encouraging that several districts, including Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County Schools seems supportive of a student walkout that does not otherwise disrupt the school day. But not every district is supportive. In addition to general prohibitions on blocking access or disrupting classes, many school districts have specific rules that could be applied to a walkout.

We should support students looking beyond their own lives into the future of our society. Therefore, I will make a strong attempt to find no cost, pro bono representation for any student at a tribunal hearing arising out of the March 14th School walkout.

District by District Responses
The information below is based on the most recent information I have received, and may be out of date. I will update as I learn more. UPDATED: 3/12/18

Atlanta Public Schools: School staff will be actively participating, but any walkout must have prior approval.

Fulton: Middle and High Schools will organize voluntary, structured activities to show support during the planned time of the walkout. Leaving school grounds is still prohibited.
Rule 7 of the Fulton Code of Conduct prohibits failure to comply with reasonable school staff directions

DeKalb: Superintendent statement supports freedom of expression but reminds students that civil disobedience has consequences and the code of conduct will still be enforced.
This seems supportive of the March 14 student protest. However, Rule 12 of the DeKalb Code of Conduct specifically prohibits walkouts, so the statement does not resolve possible concerns about how Dekalb actually plans to handle the walkout.

City Schools of Decatur: Superintendent supports free expression, but walkouts violate student code of conduct and typically come with a three-day suspension. Dr. Dude speculates that principals might use their authority to reduce punishment, but does not make it a district policy.
Rule 25 of the CSD Code of Conduct explicitly includes walkouts.

Gwinnett: Opposes walkout because it could interfere with GCSD's primary responsibility to educate.
Rule 8 of the Gwinnett Code of Conduct prohibits failure to comply with reasonable school staff directions

Cobb: Does not support walkouts that disrupt school operation.
Rule G4 of the Cobb Code of Conduct prohibits failure to comply with reasonable school staff directions

Marietta City Schools: Emailed statement of support, won't punish "peaceful and respectful activism"

Clayton: Allow students to participate without fear of penalty. School principals are governing and supporting events as appropriate.

Forsyth: Apparently included as part of school day

Henry: Apparently included as part of school day

Douglas: Unclear

Cherokee: Apparently supports

Find this useful?