The Right to Protest: Students and the First Amendment

On Wednesday, March 14, many students around the country will be participating in a #NationalSchoolWalkout. The event will be at 10 a.m. across every time zone and last 17 minutes -- one minute for each of the victims of the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. "March for Our Lives" was started by survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In addition to memorializing Parkland victims, the walkout will be a protest action.

Students are also partnering with national organization Women’s March Youth EMPOWER to organize their walkouts. Protesters are calling for nationwide gun control measures such as banning assault rifles, expanding background checks, and a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior.

But do students have a legal right to walk out of school to engage in a protest action? To answer this question, we can take a look at historical legal precedent.

In 1965, some students in Des Moines, Iowa public schools wore black armbands to express their concerns about Vietnam War casualties. Some were subsequently suspended and took their case to court. In the landmark case, Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court decided that “students . . . [do not] shed their constitutional rights to freedom of ... expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

The Supreme Court decision permitted the wearing of black armbands to protest the Vietnam War by noting that when symbolic speech is by nature peaceful, then it is regulated by the rules pertaining to pure speech. Only when such acts materially or substantially interfere with the rights of others, the Court ruled, would some form of regulation be permitted. The Tinker ruling protected the rights of students in public schools to carry out symbolic protests as long as they did not cause a disruption in the classroom. 

So, students cannot be punished for simply expressing a political opinion, but they can be punished for causing a disruption. Unexcused absences can be considered a disruption and can be punished accordingly. ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, and Wisconsin educational law attorney Christine V. Hamiel  weigh in on the specifics for students and their families, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the National Coalition Against Censorship put together this nifty comic book to address student concerns.

To protest or not to protest? It is important to remember that students are guaranteed the right not to protest. The choice belongs to you. What if you do not want to protest, but you are anxious to make your voice heard on issues you care about?

Get ready to exercise your right to vote. The State of Colorado allows anyone aged sixteen or seventeen to pre-register to vote once they turn eighteen.

You are eligible to register to vote if you:

• are a United States citizen

• are 16 years of age, but you must be 18 years of age or older on the date of the election at which you intend to vote

• are a Colorado resident for at least 22 days immediately before the election at which you intend to vote

• are not serving a sentence (including parole) for a felony conviction

Once you register, take time to learn about political candidates and use your library card to access CQResearcher, featuring in-depth analysis of topics in the news ranging from social and teen issues to environment, health, education, science and technology.

Written by Robin on March 13, 2018


Siobhan on March 13, 2018


Thank you! I've passed this along to the teachers and students in my life.

JG on March 15, 2018


Thank you so much for this resource. This is what the library is all about!

FrankW on March 15, 2018


Great post Robin! I was just talking to a woman I know about her granddaughter who was struggling with what to do at her school. This is some really interesting stuff and some good suggestions on getting engaged and involved!

GenineP on March 20, 2018


Nice work, Robin!

Leave a comment

1 + 19 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.