As record numbers of students around the state participate in walkouts and other demonstrations against gun violence, we are urging local public schools not only to recognize the constitutionally-assured free speech rights of their students, but also to recognize this as an important teaching opportunity.
Just as their grandparents now talk about protesting against the Vietnam War, current students one day might tell their grandchildren how they protested about gun control, about immigration, or about reproductive rights. Through protesting, young people learn firsthand about our democratic system of government, civic dialogue, and using their voices to impact public policy.
After all, Iowa is home to the famous Tinker case. The three middle and high school students were kicked out of their Des Moines schools for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The ACLU represented them in a landmark case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That case resulted in a ruling that applies to students even today — that public school students have a fundamental right to their political beliefs and they can express them at school.
Other cases have further held that schools can’t punish student speech because of viewpoint. For example, a public school can’t allow a demonstration against gun violence but then block a protest for gun rights.
Schools can punish students if they create a “material” or “substantial” disruption at school — such as a walkout. School administrators are within their legal rights, for example, to write up or punish students who skip out of a class period or miss a day of school. But what they cannot do is punish students more harshly for that absence because it was part of a protest or demonstration than they would for any other reason — like skipping class and going to the mall.
Schools should seize this opportunity and use the walkouts to bring to life this lesson about American civic responsibility for a new generation of students.
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To this end, we recently sent an open letter to the superintendent of every public school in Iowa, urging them to take the following approach:
• Interpret absentee policies liberally to allow students to attend demonstrations. Just as with a religious holiday, family event, or doctor’s appointment, taking an hour or so out of the day for a walkout, or even an entire day, can easily be made up.
• Ensure that policies regarding on-campus speech provide ample chance for public discussion. Students may wish to express their views by doing everything from rallying at the flagpole before school, to distributing literature, to wearing certain T-shirts.
• Foster discussion among students with differing views. Teach students the skills to argue persuasively for their viewpoint, to listen respectfully to other views, and to be open to changing their minds. Demonstrate equal respect for students who choose to attend demonstrations and students who choose not to do so.
• Teach students about the history of student protest and activism to shape our country. The current wave of student activism is part of a rich American tradition. Teaching students about the movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and other causes will enhance students’ experiences and help to inform their decisions about how best to effect change.
• Rita Bettis is the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.