School Climate & Safety Commentary

Let Them March: Schools Should Not Censor Students

Student walkouts have protections under the First Amendment
By Kathleen Bartzen Culver & Erica Salkin — March 09, 2018 4 min read
Students protest on the floor of the Florida Capitol earlier this month to push for a ban on assault weapons.

School administrators across the country have a choice to make this week. Judging from pre-emptive censorship efforts in two districts, some of them are going to get it wrong.

To mark the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 14 deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., students nationwide plan to walk out of school for 17 minutes to demand their state and local representatives address gun violence. Students, who are among the organizers of the ENOUGH National School Walkout on March 14 and a separate day-long National School Walkout on April 20, are using social media to rally classmates. In a statement posted to Instagram and Facebook, student organizers call their joint efforts “part of an escalating force in a longer fight.”

Yet, in at least two school districts, administrators are seeking to silence student voices with threats of discipline. In a now-deleted public Facebook post, Superintendent Curtis Rhodes of the Needville Independent School District, near Houston, warned against student participation in any type of protest during school hours. He threatened a three-day suspension for any participating student because, he wrote in the post, students “are here for an education and not a political protest.”

Schools have a broader mission to help students emerge as participants in their democracy."

A letter to the district’s families also declared that parents’ notes excusing students would not alleviate the discipline. Three civil rights groups have since sent their own letter to Rhodes protesting his stance. A similar pre-emptive communication in the Waukesha school district in Wisconsin sought to assure parents that it did not organize or condone walkouts.

The censorship efforts raise two intriguing legal questions. First, are these acts of expression protected under the First Amendment? And, second, what rights do parents have to support their children’s efforts in the face of school or district discipline?

We can address the first question with the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines. The case involved a group of Iowa high school students, including siblings Mary Beth and John Tinker, who wore black armbands to school in support of a truce during the Vietnam War. Tipped off to the students’ intentions, the school district passed a policy prohibiting the action. The Tinkers sued the district, and their case made it to the highest court in the land, where they won.

Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority in the case, noted that the right to free expression did not end “at the schoolhouse gate” but could be regulated if such expression causes a “material and substantial” disruption to the school day. But schools should use that regulation sparingly, as “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.”

Does a planned, peaceful protest—as this week’s walkouts advocating stricter gun laws and increased school safety measures are slated to be—pose the threat of disruption? The high court’s clear guidance to schools is to consider the realistic possibility of disruption. In that process, schools have the space to explore how they might work around disruption and still allow the experience of pure political speech like armbands, speeches, or walkouts.

The second question, regarding parents’ rights, calls for separate analysis. The decision by some schools to ignore parental consent for their child to miss class for a walkout runs counter to many existing absence policies. Any parent with a child in braces recognizes the need to take her out of school for an appointment. Parental permission to be out for protest, these districts appeared to propose, is not the same.

The judicial record would disagree. While all 50 states and the District of Columbia have compulsory education laws to ensure an educated citizenry, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the rights of parents to choose where their children get that education and barred schools from forcing students to express ideological sentiments that conflict with their family’s deeply held beliefs.

In the case of walkouts, parents are supporting a foundational purpose of education—the creation of the citizen—by endorsing civic engagement. The students are not walking out in some act of youthful arrogance or privilege to, say, demand WiFi in school so they can use Snapchat. Instead, the student organizers write in their statement, they want to “send a strong message to our elected officials that we want to be safe, particularly in our schools.”

Isn’t this also exactly the kind of civic participation schools should be encouraging? We often focus on the legal aspects of free expression, yet there’s also an ethical argument. No doubt districts have a responsibility to ensure orderly schools. But as anchors within their communities and vital child-development spaces, schools have a broader mission to help students emerge as participants in their democracy.

The First Amendment is often about what government cannot do—in this case, censor student expression without proof of disruption. Yet, the First Amendment is also about what government can do. As Justice Fortas reminded schools, they are not “enclaves of totalitarianism,” nor are students “closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.” In this case, school districts can and should allow students the right to political speech within reasonable limits.

This links to an element of the Tinker case that is often forgotten: Mary Beth and John’s little sister, Hope, who was in elementary school at the time, also wore a black armband. Though the school did not discipline her, she did face teasing on the playground. Her teacher, Linda Ordway, stood up for her—and for the First Amendment.

That’s exactly what educators should be doing today. The students have said, “We want to learn. We want to live. Please support us.” Educators have no need to support the content of students’ expression. But in a free society, they have every obligation to stand up for their students’ right to speak.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

[2021-2022] Founding Middle School Academic Dean
New York, NY, US
DREAM Charter School
Hiring Bilingual and Special Education Teachers NOW!
Newark, New Jersey
Newark Public Schools
DevOps Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
User Experience Analyst
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Boy, 15, Injured in Arkansas School Shooting; Classmate Held
A 15-year-old boy shot and seriously injured a fellow student Monday morning at an Arkansas junior high school, authorities said.
1 min read
Traffic is lined up March 1, 2021 outside Watson Chapel Junior High School in Pine Bluff, Ark. as parents pick up students after a shooting at the school.
Traffic is lined up March 1, 2021 outside Watson Chapel Junior High School in Pine Bluff, Ark. as parents pick up students after a shooting at the school.
Staton Breidenthal/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP
School Climate & Safety Interactive School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where
Education Week is tracking shootings in K-12 schools in 2021. See the number of incidents and where they occurred in our map and data table.
3 min read
Sign indicating school zone.
School Climate & Safety When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here's What Educators Can Do
Papering over legitimate, negative feelings with phrases like "look on the bright side" can be harmful for teachers and students.
6 min read
Image shows the Mr. Yuck emoji with his tongue out in response to bubbles of positive sayings all around him.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Ingram Publishing/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG