What Rights To Protest Do Public High Schoolers Have?

Last week saw a spike in reports of protests on Atlanta area high school campuses. Students are participating in a sit-in in Fulton County schools, DeKalb athletes are threatening to take a knee at football games and Gwinnett students are skipping class to join prayer circles – all protesting racial inequality and incidents of police violence.

So far, school officials appear to be treading carefully. DeKalb and Fulton County’s school systems say they support students’ political expression as long as it’s not disruptive.

Frank LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an organization that advocates for student First Amendment rights. He said a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case over high school students protesting the Vietnam War, Tinker v. Des Moines, protects political speech in public schools.

“It’s only when the conversation boils over into the point where people are going to start exchanging blows or people are going to be completely unable to concentrate on anything going on in the classroom that the school can intercede,” LoMonte said.

He said the ruling isn’t a free pass to break campus rules.

However, LoMonte said just because schools can legally discipline students, it doesn’t mean they should.

“Even where it’s legal to punish something, you should then stop and ask yourself, ‘is this the best educational judgment?’” he said, applauding educators who use the protests as teaching moments.

LoMonte said he thinks most school districts and their attorneys know the law by now, and do tend to open up discussion spaces around protests. His group hasn’t heard of any recent violations of students’ free speech rights regarding Black Lives Matter-style issues, but expects it’s a matter of time.

Like us on Facebook