Free Speech Week honors one of the most important freedoms in the First Amendment, but there are some limitations to what speech is protected, especially for students. I learned this in 2018, when I had the opportunity to attend a reenactment of the historic Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines. Hearing that there was a legal precedent for student protest inspired me to want to better advocate for myself and my fellow students — but it soon became clear that the freedoms available to me were actually pretty minimal.
As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) writes in their summary of the case, “[T]here are still limits on what students can do in public schools.” While they can protest, as Mary Beth Tinker did by wearing an armband, any protest that violates an attendance policy or otherwise disrupts the learning environment is not protected under the ruling. The ACLU also notes that since the use of social media as a form of protest has spiked in the last few years, “some schools have attempted to extend their power to punish students for speaking off-campus and outside school hours.” The ACLU has denounced and challenged such measures, but courts nationwide are not unified on whether or not this action is constitutional.
If you find yourself asking, “Why would students need to protest in school?”, the answer is incredibly simple: for the betterment of their educational environments. For example, 2018 saw widespread student protests following the shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In order to get more attention from the government, students nationwide walked out of class and gathered in large groups to advocate for stricter gun control laws.
But instead of supporting the students’ right to free speech, many schools simply marked the children with an unexcused absence unless they had a note from a parent, essentially ignoring the students’ pleas. This put pressure on students who could not miss school or schoolwork for whatever reason and decreased the number of students who could make their voices heard.
During the coronavirus pandemic, some students have faced disciplinary action from their schools for sharing their experiences with reopening. Multiple students at North Paulding High School in Georgia say that they were suspended for sharing photos of the crowded hallway at their school where multiple students were not wearing masks. The Student Press Law Center has condemned NPHS’s actions in a letter, citing Tinker v. Des Moines and noting that the school cannot punish students for actions taken on social media after hours.
On October 20, students at the Ovid-Elsie High School in Michigan held a protest calling for a better system for online learning to be put in place, as they believe the one currently in effect is causing a large number of students to fall behind. This protest was scheduled to take place from 7:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., meaning that participants likely missed a day of school and therefore violated the attendance policy, an action that is not protected by the Tinker v. Des Moines decision.
Further, on Tuesday, October 13, students at Paso Robles (California) High School held a protest in the parking lot of the school during school hours to go back to in-person learning. Students socially distanced and participated in classes via Zoom while supervised by a school official. Though this protest was not in violation of any school policies, it certainly caught the school’s attention.
These instances of student advocacy activity, however, are not limited to walking out of class and protesting. In fact, the students at my own school, the School Without Walls High School in Washington, D.C., are in the middle of our own coordinated response to the recent actions of our school district.
On October 7, our principal, Richard Trogisch, was abruptly fired. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) informed the parents and students of this change via an email but provided no reason as to why he was let go.
This action caused an immediate uproar amongst the students, who took to social media in Trogisch’s defense. I, personally, gathered all of the information I could about the situation and created a “carrd” with all of the links for students to reference. I have also helped create a Student Advocacy Server on Discord, a platform that allows users to create online spaces to chat over text or the phone with their friends. This platform allows students to organize and stay up-to-date on the situation, as well as form a unified response on this issue and any others that may come up in the future. A petition has also been circulated calling for Trogisch’s reinstatement.
In addition to organizing online, students at my school have attended protests, one of which was organized by a member of our own student government. The others have been organized by parents and teachers but have featured attendance and speakers from the student body.
So why do students protest? The same reason anyone else would: for our rights. Every child in this country has a right to an education as well as a right to make sure that they are getting the best education possible. When a school system takes actions that disturb that education, the community has every right to be enraged and advocate for its repair. If necessary, this may mean taking actions that would violate the remaining restrictions on student free speech that Tinker v. Des Moines outlined, such as in the case of the walk-outs for gun control in 2018. Actions like these force the school systems and their administrations to pay attention and listen to the demands of their students. Why, then, are they not allowed? Why must students be forced to protest their schools only in a way that the school sees fit?
In order to ensure that student voices are heard, schools should not limit the freedoms of speech that are given to citizens outside of the schoolyard. An education is a human right, and therefore the ability to advocate for it should not be hindered by an organization that wants to make decisions for its own benefit, not the benefit of the students.