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Your Rights as a Student Protester


Public school students K-12 do not lose their right to free speech when they enter the school building. Students can distribute flyers and petitions or wear expressive clothing. They can even speak out about controversial topics or protest the school’s own policies and actions.

There are, however, some limits on what students can do. Below are answers to common questions about how public schools can respond to demonstrations.

What are my rights to protest in school?

Generally, you have the right to speak out so long as you do not substantially or materially disrupt school operations. Some things that could be considered substantial or material disruptions are: blocking entrances and exits, disrupting class by leaving or making noise that would interrupt a class, climbing on school structures and property, hate speech & bullying, threats of violence, or breaking laws. A school can punish you for disrupting class by speaking out of turn or for leaving without permission, even if you did so to make a political statement.

Some things that probably would not be considered a substantial or material disruption are: wearing expressive clothing (unless it is vulgar, promotes drug use, or includes confederate flags or anti-LGBT messages); signing and sharing petitions; participating in peaceful marches which do not interrupt classes, holding teach-ins and information sessions which follow the school’s events policies, making posters and flyers.

The school can also require you to follow “content-neutral policies,” which do not focus on the message you express. These include dress codes, restrictions on leaving school without permission, or rules against posting on walls. A school can prohibit you from wearing hats in the classroom, because that rule is not based on what the hats say, but it can’t prohibit you from wearing a pro-NRA or pink pussycat hat, for example.

What rules can my school set for student groups?

Schools are allowed to set general rules that apply to all student groups for when and where they can meet – like creating specific times where all groups can meet, specific requirements for student group social media accounts, or only allowing student groups to meet in a certain part of the building. Schools are allowed to limit the activity of student groups (and even shut them down) if the groups “materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities” or promote violence or illegal acts.

Can my school shut down my student group because they disagree with our viewpoint?

No. The federal Equal Access Act prohibits schools from discriminating against students who wish to form student groups based on their religious, political, or philosophical beliefs. This means that schools cannot prevent a group from forming or limit privileges for those groups (like funding, public meeting announcements, or social media privileges) while allowing other groups those privileges. This also means that schools cannot ban groups or limit student speech just because their message is unpopular.

Can I be disciplined for attending a protest off campus and after school hours?

It depends. Many school districts’ codes of conduct (including NYC, Yonkers, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse City School District’s) apply to conduct that happens off campus and after class time if it can cause a risk of “substantial disruption” to the school community. Some types of things that schools typically are allowed to regulate when they are off-campus and off-school time include hate speech, bullying and harassment, threats of violence or unlawful behavior aimed at teachers or students, rules related to computer use, plagiarism, and breaches of school security devices.

Wearing clothing with your school logo or colors to a protest could pose an additional risk of discipline because it could make it seem like the event is affiliated with the school.

Can I get in trouble for kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem?

No. School officials cannot discipline students for kneeling or other acts of silent protest during the Pledge of Allegiance or National Anthem because students have a right to express their political views, as long as the protest actions do not substantially disrupt school activities or interfere with other students’ rights.

Can my school censor my politically opinionated views in the school paper?

Maybe, but not just because you expressed an unpopular opinion. Your school’s justification for the censorship must be “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” That means that publishing this content could interfere with or affect the school’s ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. The school can censor articles that contain profanity, true threats, inappropriate sexual references, are lewd, vulgar or indecent, or promote illegal drug use. Your school district may also have a policy about school publications that may be more protective of student speech, so be sure to review your district’s policy.

Can students who participate in a walkout be punished for leaving class?

Yes. If your school normally does not allow you to leave the building without permission, then you do not have any special right to do so to engage in a political demonstration. But, just because the school is authorized to punish you does not mean they must do so. It is worth asking for leniency.

Can students be punished more severely for participating in a walkout rather than leaving for other reasons?

No. Imposing harsher punishment on students who skip school to engage in political activities than on those who cut school for any other reason violates the First Amendment. If you believe this happened to you, please let us know so we can gather more information.

If I leave school for a walkout, can I be picked up by truancy officers or stopped by law enforcement?

Yes. If you are not physically present in school during school hours, you may be stopped by truancy officers. We encourage you to participate in a permitted protest event to minimize your risk. However, even attending a permitted event during school hours may not shield you from truancy enforcement.

Can students with prior disciplinary history be punished more severely than others for participating in a walkout?

Yes. Your school may increase the severity of your punishment if you have already committed a previous offense. This is why the NYCLU urges schools to carefully consider the consequences of disciplining students for participating in protests: some students will be more impacted than others. Review your school’s Code of Conduct for specific guidance. The school must provide this to you at the beginning of the school year and make copies available to parents.

Can schools prevent students from leaving the building to participate in a walkout?

Yes. We encourage schools to support students’ rights to protest, but schools may take reasonable steps to prevent rule violations, including walkouts. Most schools have rules against leaving class or the building without permission. Some schools may allow students to gather inside the school to protest but may still punish students who leave school. Some may not punish students who leave with their parents’ permission, while punishing students who leave without it. Just because a school may take reasonable steps to prevent rule violations does not mean that a school’s decision is a wise one. You have the right to criticize the school, including by talking to the media, using your own time and resources when you are not at school.

Can schools block exits or schedule drills to prevent students from participating in a walkout?

No. Report any instances to the New York State Education Department and the Commissioner of Education at (518) 474-3852.

Can schools prevent students from carrying signs during walkouts?

It depends. Generally, students should be allowed to have signs, so long as they aren’t too big or otherwise displayed in a way that disrupts school operations or violates content-neutral rules. If you are prohibited from displaying a sign, let us know so we can gather more information.

What can I do if my school suspends me?

You may be able to appeal the suspension. See our “Know Your Rights When Facing a Suspension” guide in English or Spanish. You may have to first appeal your suspension to the school board, so check your school’s Code of Conduct. You can then appeal your suspension to the Commissioner of Education, but you only have 30 days to initiate an appeal. The rules can be complicated and you may want to consult a lawyer.

What are my rights to protest as an undocumented student at in-school and outside demonstrations?

Undocumented student protesters have the same First Amendment rights as student protesters with United States’ citizenship at protests. However, undocumented students may face additional negative consequences if arrested during a demonstration, that could lead to detention and even deportation, so you should take extra precautions to ensure you are not subject to arrest. If you are in the US on an immigrant visa or green card, you should talk to an immigration attorney about your rights and responsibilities.

Can I protest during remote learning?

Yes, students’ rights to protest during remote learning are the same as their rights in the traditional school setting, subject to the same restrictions. Your school may have adopted new rules for remote learning that could impact you, so be sure to check your Code of Conduct.

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