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ACLU: The Scoop on What Free Speech Rights Students Have

Pushing for change as a student? The ACLU has your back— here’s the scoop.

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With students across the county turning the heads of many politicians — due to their inspiring and exemplary push for legislative change in wake of the tragic Parkland, Florida shooting — it’s important to remember that public high school and college students are protected by the First Amendment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“You do not lose your right to free speech just by walking into school,” Josh Bell, ACLU Center for Democracy Media Strategist, said in an email. “You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions and wear expressive clothing in school– as long as you don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school’s content-neutral policies.”

An example of that is when school has a certain dress code policy, they can prohibit you to wearing certain styles of clothes, like hats or sleeveless tops. However, schools cannot prevent their students from speaking out simply because they disagree with a message or think it is controversial or in “bad taste.”

“Courts have upheld students’ rights to wear things like an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion, and a shirt supporting the LGBT community,” Bell said.

A more relevant topic of students rights is walk-outs. The law in virtually all jurisdictions requires students to go to school, schools can typically discipline students for missing class, even if they’re doing so to participate in a protest or otherwise express themselves including these protests but, the school can’t do is discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don’t support the views. Students argue that schools should recognize that even when they are within their right to discipline students for protests, that doesn’t always mean they should.

Off campus, every student has the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else when outside of school environments. “This means you’re likely to be most protected if you organize, protest and advocate for your views off campus and outside of school hours,” Bell said.

The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have inspired so many for the future of our democracy and their schools should be advocating their successes. Our generations have proven, they are ready to challenge these issues, and schools should be able to recognize these student advocates are our future!

Are you looking for digital journalism training and experience? Are you a journalism major who wants to take your career to the next level? CMN’s Digital Journalism course gives you real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to journalism influencers and mentors, and a great place to display your work. You can get academic credit too. Check out the Digital Journalism Course here.

Erin Whitten is currently CMN's Senior Correspondent and is currently a student at Arizona State University majoring in Mass Communications and Media Studies.

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