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October 5, 2018

Know Your Rights: Back to School & Free Speech

As students are settling back into the Fall school routine, it’s important to be aware of what constitutional rights exist on school property. Whether or not your public school can punish you for speaking out depends entirely on when, where, and how you choose to express yourself.

First Amendment rights exist on school grounds, just as they would anywhere else. As a student, you have the right to speak out, distribute flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing- as long as you do not disrupt the functioning of the educational institution or violate the school’s content-neutral policies. In the past, courts have upheld students’ rights to wear items such as an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion, and a shirt supporting the LGBTQ community.

While clothing is one of the ways students have chosen to express activism, one of the most controversial topics of students’ rights currently surrounds ‘walkouts.’ By law, students can be disciplined for participating in a walkout, as missing class violates the law requiring students to attend school. However, your school cannot punish you more harshly because of the political nature of the action or message. The exact punishment you could face will vary by state and school district, so be sure to read your school policies to prepare for potential discipline. If you are planning to miss simply a class or two, look at the policy for unexcused absences. If you’re considering walking out for several days, read about truancy.

It is also crucial to understand your rights surrounding social media. Your school cannot punish you for content you post off campus and outside of school hours, that does not relate to school. While some educational institutions have attempted to extend their power to discipline students for off-campus posts, the ACLU has continued to challenge such overreach.

If you are an attendee of private school, unfortunately your rights to free speech may not be as protected. Public schools are run by the government, while private schools are not, and the First Amendment only controls what the government can and cannot do.

If you have any questions or need representation for issues surrounding education law or free speech, please call the Boston Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 617- 742- 0625 or connect with an area attorney online.