Exploring Student Rights and Free Speech

Hundreds walked out of Franklin on March 14, generally with consent from teachers and administrators. On April 20, another walkout will be held, unsanctioned by school officials.

While a student cannot vote until age 18, it is not true that they are not represented and protected by U.S. law before that age. American students are citizens and therefore have certain constitutional rights. However, on public educational property, those rights become limited.

“On school property, the Supreme Court has ruled that [students] have a right to free speech as long as it does not disrupt the educational environment,” states Franklin Government and Constitution Team teacher, Portia Hall. Hall explains that school staff has the authority to restrict certain behaviors and phrases, specifically those which are disruptive or discriminatory. Public schools are government sanctioned, which means this is the government restricting the words of its citizens. However, the purpose of this is to ensure that every student is getting the education they are entitled to. Violating free speech was only made acceptable in this case because it prevents acts so discriminatory that certain students would not receive the education that is their right.

This only applies to public schools. Private schools are not government sanctioned, and the constitution only regulates the government and what the government may not take from its people (free speech, for example). So private school students do not have the same First Amendment protection as public school students do.

The standard for what is disruptive to the environment is completely up to the school’s staff and varies between every school district, if not every school. For example, the legal precedent required for a school to search through a student’s belongings without consent is that of “reasonable suspicion,” compared to a police officer who would need a warrant based off of probable cause. “Reasonable is kind of a vague term, but you can’t have just any suspicion. It has to be reasonable,” says Hall. Because there are no requirements for suspicion to be reasonable, the decision of reasonable or not can only be officially interpreted in a court of law. If a student believes that was violated, they may file a lawsuit. Hall recounts a Supreme Court case in which a 13 year-old girl was strip searched, including the examination of the inside of her underwear, in search of ibuprofen (Safford Unified School District v. Redding). The search was ruled unreasonable, proving that students do retain certain rights. The only exception to these standards is that of school lockers. Lockers have been ruled as school property, and therefore are eligible for unprompted search.
All of this only applies to acts performed on school property. As Hall explains, “If you are having a protest in a park, and you are 16 and next to somebody who’s 19, you don’t have different rights just because you are a student.” When not at school, students have complete reign over their right to free speech, including the right to assemble. Only acts that significantly and negatively affect the learning environment can be reprimanded. However, if social media affects someone’s academic career, it then becomes a school concern. “But, of course, we only find out about it if people report it,” says Hall. “It’s too big. Who can go out and monitor 1,600-1,700 peoples’ [Instagram accounts]?”

While a student cannot vote until age 18, it is not true that they are not represented and protected by U.S. law before that age. American students are citizens and therefore have certain constitutional rights. However, on public educational property, those rights become limited.

“On school property, the Supreme Court has ruled that [students] have a right to free speech as long as it does not disrupt the educational environment,” states Franklin High School’s Government and Constitution Team teacher, Portia Hall. Hall explains that teachers have the authority to restrict certain behaviors and phrases, specifically those which are disruptive or discriminatory. Public schools are government sanctioned, which means this is the government restricting the words of its citizens. However, the purpose of this is to ensure that every student is getting the education they are entitled to. Violating free speech was only made acceptable in this case because it prevents acts so discriminatory that certain students would not receive the education that they are entitled to. However, this only applies to public schools. Private schools are not government sanctioned, and the constitution only regulates the government and what the government may not take from its people (free speech, for example). So private school students do not have the same First Amendment protection as public school students do.

The standard for what is disruptive to the environment is completely up to the school’s staff and varies between every school district, if not every school. For example, the legal precedent required for a school to search through a student’s belongings without consent is that of “reasonable suspicion,” compared to a police officer who would need a warrant based off of probable cause. “Reasonable is kind of a vague term, but you can’t have just any suspicion. It has to be reasonable,” says Hall. Because there are no requirements for suspicion to be reasonable, the decision of reasonable or not can only be officially interpreted in a court of law. If a student believes that was violated, they may file a lawsuit. Hall recounts a Supreme Court case in which a 13 year-old girl was strip searched, including the examination of the inside of her underwear, in search of ibuprofen (Safford Unified School District v. Redding). The search was ruled unreasonable, proving that students do retain certain rights. The only exception to these standards is that of school lockers. Lockers have been ruled as school property, and therefore are eligible for unprompted search.
All of this only applies to acts performed on school property. As Hall explains, “If you are having a protest in a park, and you are 16 and next to somebody who’s 19, you don’t have different rights just because you are a student.” When not at school, students have complete reign of their right to free speech, including the right to assemble. Only acts that significantly and negatively affect the learning environment can be reprimanded. However, if social media affects someone’s academic career, it then becomes a school concern. “But, of course, we only find out about it if people report it,” says Hall. “It’s too big. Who can go out and monitor 1,600-1,700 peoples’ [Instagram accounts]?”

Students can be punished for political actions, but only if it is the same punishment they would get if the act was non-political in nature. “If you skip class to go and have a cigarette, if you skip class to go and get coffee, or you skip class to go to a protest, the punishment has to be exactly the same,” says Hall. The American Civil Liberties Union has also recently been making sure students are aware of this information. No educational authority can change consequences for an action because it was political. This was decided by the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines, when students wore black bands in protest of the Vietnam War and were excessively punished.

There is no regulation that requires students to have representation in their school, yet most schools have student governments. “Student body elections often end up being [what] they call ‘popularity contests,’” says Hall. She explains that although we have a Student Senate, the times in which she has seen it be most effective is when there are a couple passionate student leaders, and the Senate is predominantly student run. “Sometimes we’ve had student representation, and sometimes we haven’t. It’s about if the students ask for it.” In addition to student government, if students wish to inflict change in their society, students can also create publications, submit to or join their school newspaper, contact their local government, or donate to politicians (even if not in their district) that they would wish to support.

No matter what restrictions one’s school may have in place, there will always be another option: the choice to rebel. While not compliant with legal or constitutional rules, it is undeniably an option students will always maintain. If the norm is corrupt, there is always retaliation. “Isn’t civil disobedience supposed to be disobedient? You’re supposed to be breaking the rules in order to make a point, that’s the whole idea, that’s why people started doing civil disobedience, to draw attention to something,” explains Hall. It is written in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Students are citizens, and they may exercise that right to the fullest extent they can, as long as they understand that rebellion entails risk.
“People in charge will always take advantage if you don’t know [your rights],” states Hall. When students do not know their options, or believe they will be punished for things they will not be punished for, or are being punished unlawfully, they cannot exercise what rights they have.

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