The Central Islip School District should not have suspended 100 middle school students this month for exercising their constitutional rights by participating in a mass protest against proposed budget cuts during class time, according to a letter the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Suffolk County Chapter sent today to Superintendent Craig Carr.

On April 1, 2011, more than 100 seventh and eighth graders at Ralph J. Reed Middle School received one-day suspensions after they had walked out of their classes to protest planned budget cuts that could result in layoffs for school district teachers. The students marched about a mile from the school to the district offices, where they picketed with hand-made signs.

“The students’ walkout was a powerful demonstration of political speech,” said Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU's Suffolk County Chapter. “As an important exercise of students’ First Amendment rights, it was a vivid and entirely valid civics lesson. These students should be praised for their idealism, not punished by being suspended from school.”

The NYCLU’s letter maintains that punishing students for political protest sends a message that free speech is unimportant and discourages future civic participation.

In June 2010, nearly 1,000 New York City public school students walked out of dozens of city schools to protest proposed cuts to student MetroCards. The New York City Department of Education did not suspend them for exercising their political rights, but instead respected student protests as a vehicle for political expression. Less than three months later, funding for student MetroCards was preserved. The NYCLU suggested that Central Islip should have followed the DOE’s example.