What The National School Walkout Says About Schools And Free Speech

By Clay Calvert, University of Florida

Thousands of high school students across the nation left their classes March 14 precisely at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes.

The walkout served two purposes: to honor the 17 people – including 14 students – killed exactly one month ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and to call for stronger gun control laws.

Organized by a Women’s March unit called Youth Empower and promoted on Twitter with the hashtags #Enough and #NationalSchoolWalkout, students throughout the country took to the streets and gathered at various places to call attention to the problem of gun violence in schools and in their communities.

Some schools are threatening to punish these young activists. But others are trying to work with them. As one article put it, “The response from school districts has been mixed, with some threatening to suspend students and others promising to incorporate the walkout into a civics lesson.”

Enter the First Amendment

From my standpoint as director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, all of this raises important questions about the scope of First Amendment speech rights for high school students. Are the students who exit their classes immune from punishment?

A starting point for answering this question is to understand that the First Amendment only protects against government censorship, not censorship by private entities. Thus, only public school students have First Amendment speech rights. Private school students do not.

California is an exception to this rule. It has a statute known as the Leonard Law that extends First Amendment speech rights to students at private nonreligious high schools. No other state has such a statute.

From black armbands to student walkouts

The second point is that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1969 in a case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that public high school students do have First Amendment speech rights while on campus. Those rights are limited, however. Specifically, the right of free speech ends when there are facts that might reasonably lead “school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.”

In Tinker, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of several students who wore black armbands to their schools to protest the war in Vietnam and to support a truce over the winter holidays. There was simply no evidence that the passive expression of a political viewpoint on a sleeve might substantially and materially disrupt educational activities.

Like Tinker, the student walkouts today are a form of political expression and, in particular, dissenting political expression because the students object to current gun laws. Such speech lies at the heart of the First Amendment.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court in a nonstudent speech case in 2010, “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people.” He added that “political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it, whether by design or inadvertence.” With today’s walkouts, students want to hold lawmakers accountable for what they view as lax gun control laws.

Not immune from punishment

School officials who punish students for walking out of class today have the right to do so as long as they are enforcing regular attendance policies in a consistent manner. They could also argue that leaving class for 17 minutes amounts to a substantial and material disruption of educational activities, per the rule from Tinker.

On the other hand, missing 17 minutes out of a school day and, in turn, an entire school year seems neither substantially nor materially disruptive. Punishing students for a brief but important moment of political activism may be sending the wrong message about freedom of speech in a democratic society.

Many universities have said they will not hold it against applicants who are punished due to today’s walkout. As Richard H. Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid at Stanford University, stated, “Given the nature of this national tragedy and the true and heartfelt response of students in expressing their perspectives and expectations, the University will not consider the choice of students to participate in protests as a factor in the review of present or future candidates.”

The price of civil disobedience

So the choice to walk out and face possible punishment ultimately is left to the students. Sometimes that choice may be worth it. As Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida recently put it:

The effectiveness of ‘civil disobedience’ has always depended on a willingness to throw yourself in the way, whether that is sitting-in at a lunch counter or occupying the university president’s office. But that also means accepting that disciplinary or even legal consequences may result.

The ConversationThe bottom line is that the First Amendment does not give public high school students a right to walk out of classes. It does, however, give administrators a critical justification for shielding them from punishment and to take advantage of a teachable moment about the importance of political protest in the United States.

Clay Calvert, Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication, University of Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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25 Comments on "What The National School Walkout Says About Schools And Free Speech"

  1. Keep your kids at home. Better yet get your kids out of the public and private schools. If that means home schooling, come up with a community plan. They are not teaching your children what they need to survive the future. They are “dumbed” down!

    These kids are being used, once again, to push an issue that will have nothing to do with their future safety. Keep your kids away from protests and the schools.

    • I would counter that this shows they have not been indoctrinated into the status quo and have both the brains and the energy to challenge it. Advising people to refrain from using their First Amendment rights: pathetic.

      • At 77 years old you still prove to be a leftist imbecile. America is run, matter of fact all countries are run by adults. These kids that marched, have all been indoctrinated by white socialistic brain dead filth. The Kids themselves did not organize anything (VAGINA hat marchers et al) It was planned by filthy libretard adults. America can do without filth like that , also Overlord cuomocunt of NYS stated all schools must comply… what the F does that mean to you, I dare ask. It only proves that I am right and you are … How about the kids that have a brain and did not want to participate but forced – they were chastised and even a few were pummeled, that believe in the 2nd amendment rights and the bill of rights and the Constitution as it was written. Your like an old dog that has been kicked around to much… The kids that marched have no idea how to use their brains!!!!! they are just parroting their masters…
        Case Closed
        The End.
        The End.

        • I read only your first sentence: insults are the weapon of the weak-minded and incompetent.

          • Insults are the work of people to put FOOLS like you in your place…
            I also know you read what I wrote, you just cannot respond because what I said is 100% true!!!!!.

          • I don’t read the posts that begin with insults, as insults are the weapons of the corrupt and weak-minded. If you want to persuade, you do not begin with ugly insults. You lack both manners and common sense: sad.

          • I didn’t read what you wrote because you began with an insult, an admission of intellectual emptiness and moral rot. Phew!

          • Now, see here SNOWFLAKE, you are impeding on my 1st Amendment right by what you have written me. To want to stifle what someone says and how one says it, is just Machiavellian in nature. It has nothing to do with intellectual emptiness and moral rot. I am also not here to persuade you or anyone. I did not say anything in a way to sway ones thoughts. Insults are also a way to keep the mind sharp… as you can plainly see you have insulted me multiple times and guess what ,it does not bother me ONE BIT. You are just calling the kettle black and like most people, you cannot even begin to see that!!!!!

          • I repeat, when you begin with an insult (and indeed a cliche), you lose your reader. I treat you as I would a pile of shit on the sidewalk…I avoid. Please go troll elsewhere.

          • And I treat you like a pile of shit ,asshole,moron ,scumbucket foooooooool.!!!!!.

          • Hatred is like poisoning yourself and expecting the other person to die. This may explain why you are a failure.

          • You are the poison that is the root of evil in America!!!!!. I read your posts , you habe no idea what the 3/5ths rule is about, you have no idea about Japan and its gun control , you are an asswipe. You are the one that cherry pics what you wanna say and you leave out pertinent information.

          • I am the liberating force of exposing lies, my friend. the 3/5th rules was a compromise trading giving power to the minority slave owning oligarchs of the South in exchange for taxation. Japan has reduced guns and gun violence by 99.9% since the 50’s. True fact, no cherry picking.

            You are entitled to your worthless and hate-filled opinions. I have left out no pertinent information and if you had it, you would have provided it. You are trolling, hating, a true poison.

          • Ditto!!!!!

  2. Anybody who thinks this whole walkout thing was a grassroots spontaneous demonstration…. I have some beautiful farmland for you down in Plaquemines Parish. School admin have never tolerated the least bit of voice of the kids. They would suspend literally on a whim, and now they “allow” this? Not hardly.

    • Students have a long long history of protest. Your counternarrative is absurd. You are the dead status quo they are protesting.

      • BugsBunnyPatriot | March 16, 2018 at 11:22 am | Reply

        WRONG ruff, high school, middle school and grade school kids never protest unless it is sanctioned by the teachers and admin.

        • Wrong, Bugbunny. High school students were very active in civil rights protests and anti-war protests. And they did not need “sanctions” to do so.

          Among the walkouts that were NOT pre-approved by teachers and administrators (teachers have no authority to sanction such events, btw): :Chicano Blowouts were a series of 1968 protests by Chicano students against unequal conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. The first protest took place on March 1, 1968. The students who organized and carried out the protests were primarily concerned with the quality of their education. This movement (which involved thousands of students in the Los Angeles area.”wiki

          “In the West, student strikes date to the early days of universities in the Middle Ages, In more recent times, significant walkouts occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the French May 1968 uprisings began as a series of student strikes. The largest student strike/boycott in American history occurred in May and June 1970, in the aftermath of the American invasion of Cambodia and the killings of student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. An estimated four million students at more than 450 universities, colleges and high schools participated in the Student Strike of 1970.” Wiki

          You will of course argue, because you don’t want to correct your mistaken concept, that all such protests were “sanctioned.” That is just a way to dismiss them.

          In 2016 ,Boston Public School students walkout in protest of budget cuts. Do you think those who made the cuts sanctioned the walk out.

          And what does it matter if a protest is “sanctioned” by the administration, which may well understand the feelings of the students and approve of them. By the 70’s almost everyone hated the Vietnam War. Did that make protests which were approved illegitimate.

          You are trying to degrade the one right we have that can change things. You are the deadwood status quo the young students are protesting against. As Dylan sang: “If you can’t lend a hand, get out of the way.”

          • BugsBunnyPatriot | March 16, 2018 at 12:33 pm |

            No ruff I am not trying to degrade the 1st Amendment.
            perhaps you should read my statement again. I did not refer to collage kids at all. My school career ended in the 70s so I know full well about those protests. If you are trying to tell me that kids from 5 to 18 years old are able to leave school at will with out admin sanction or permission your just wrong. During my entire school career we had one walk out. It was because the teachers wanted support for a pay raise. No one cared if the teachers got a raise or not but we got out of school without penalty. If you think these kids did this on their own without adult organization and sanction you are just wrong and rather naive.

  3. The previous comment by Paul Panza has been time censored/monitored by those who think they are in control. Your days are numbered.
    “Students have the unalienable right to move this is usually phrased as
    liberty but in REALITY THIS IS FREEDOM. The ability to move, walk, run,
    dance, vibrate, and oscillate is basic to all life forms it does not
    require a law to make it a right. All those who participated are now
    being awarded the Agent of REMA Award for projecting good citizenship.
    Keep up the good work, take no s*** from any authority that violates
    your heart and mind coming together for the common good. Free your mind
    and your a** will follow”.

  4. A brilliant defense of civil disobedience. Change never comes without struggle; and when the adults are unable to act, it remains for the youth, not yet fully indoctrinated, to act. Change has always come from the young, and the old sit in their lazyboys and curse them. I am 77 and applaud these young people and join with them.

  5. BugsBunnyPatriot | March 16, 2018 at 11:17 am | Reply

    Of course they have a right to free speech however this is not free speech. This is parroting years of indoctrination by the schools. Lenin called them useful idiots.

    • Youth rebel and protest because they are not yet indoctrinated like adults. That is why it is always the new who create and adopt new ideas and bring about change. Lenin would call you a useful idiot of the status quo. “Lenin embraced revolutionary socialist politics following his brother’s 1887 execution. : He was 17 at the time.

      Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
      Castro became politically active when he was 19.

      The reason is that the young have not had their minds ossified by decades of brainwashing and thus are capable of rejecting old ideas and adopting new.

      Perhaps you had an inferior education: I found my education liberating as it introduced me to new ideas, put me in contact with people from far corners and diverse views, and taught me to separate the solid evidence from the bullshit.

      • BugsBunnyPatriot | March 17, 2018 at 8:58 am | Reply

        OK now you are just being funny. Public schools are nothing more than Socialist factories. You are actually a great example of socialist indoctrination and the very definition of Useful Idiot. I believe that your kind will eventually take over America and hope you and your kind enjoy being nothing more than a drone.

  6. I love when people who admit they have not been in a public school for 40 or 50 years are certain of how children are educated, call them drones, and deny the evidence of a younger generating embracing change to the status quo. Vey funny.

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