Know Your Rights: Students Free Speech in Public Schools 

In the last several years, students have increasingly become the target of extremist and discriminatory policies. Organizations such as Moms for Liberty, the Heritage Foundation, and the Alliance Defending Freedom are working to increase their influence over school boards, school curriculums, and advocating for laws that seek to take away rights of students.  

As this is happening, students around the country are turning heartbreaking school schooting incidents into an inspiring push for change. Students across the country are leading anti-war protest efforts.  

As student rights are under attack and students continue to organize to fight back, it’s important that everyone—students and allies—learn about students’ rights.  

Students Know Your Protest Rights

Do I have First Amendment Rights in School?

Yes. You do not lose your right to free speech just by walking into school. 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. 

Can my school discipline me for participating in a walkout?

Yes. Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class. But what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action. 

The exact punishment you could face will vary by your state, school district, and school. Find out more by reading the policies of your school and school district. If you’re planning to miss a class or two, look at the policy for unexcused absences. If you’re considering missing several days, read about truancy. And either way, take a look at the policy for suspensions. In some states and districts, suspension is not an available punishment for unexcused absences. And nationwide, if you are facing a suspension of 10 days or more, you have a right to a formal process and can be represented by a lawyer. Some states and school districts require a formal process for fewer days, too.

Also, you should be given the same right to make up work just as any other student who missed classes.

Find out the rules so you can tell if they are being applied differently when it comes to your walkout.

What about protesting away from school?

Outside of school, you enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else. 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.

What are my rights on social media?

You have the right to speak your mind on social media. Your school cannot punish you for content you post off campus and outside of school hours that does not relate to school. Some schools have attempted to extend their power to punish students even for off-campus, online posts. While courts have differed on the constitutionality of those punishments, the ACLU has challenged such overreach.

If I participate in a walkout, can the school keep me from coming back inside afterwards?

Locking out students is essentially the same thing as a suspension, so it depends on whether suspension is a possible punishment for missing class. If getting suspended is not a punishment for an unexcused absence at your school, then getting locked out after a walkout is not allowed.

Are my rights different depending on what grade I'm in?

They could be, because the test for whether speech is protected is based on whether what you’re doing can be considered “disruptive” to your school’s functioning. So, for example, the level of disruption caused by a certain message could be different in a high school classroom than in a middle school. Also, high school students are closer to being adults, so they are capable of hearing more provocative messages. Therefore, schools would likely have more leeway in restricting speech for younger students.

How are my rights different at a private school than in a public school?

The First Amendment applies to public schools’ actions, but not those of private schools, so unfortunately there is much less protection for students’ speech at a private school. This is because public schools are run by the government and private schools aren’t, and the First Amendment only controls what the government can and can’t do. That said, we hope that private schools will still allow students the leeway to express themselves and engage politically in the issues of the day.

Know Your Rights: Prom and Graduation:

Prom and Graduation Know Your Rights

Spring can be an exciting time for students – prom, senior trips, and graduation. But being prevented from taking part in prom or graduation, or from wearing what you want, can sour the semester. These guidelines can help keep your high school memories happy ones, not reminders of prejudice.

The U.S. and Idaho constitutions’ guarantees of equality and free expression, and federal law, along with Idaho’s Human Rights Act, protect residents from discrimination on the basis of sex, including in public school students’ choices about what to wear and who to take to prom.

You have the right to bring a same-sex date to the prom.
  • Public schools cannot require that your date be of the opposite sex.
  • You can’t be subject to different rules or standards based on the sex or gender identity of your date. If there is a professional photographer taking prom portraits, you have the same rights as other students to have your photo taken. 
Public schools must enforce dress codes equally, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity.  
  • Public schools can implement certain rules about what to wear at a prom, but they can’t be different for girls and boys. So your school cannot make you wear a tux because you’re a boy and cannot make you wear a dress if you’re a girl. You have a right to express yourself through the way you dress at school, prom, and graduation. 
  • As with prom, schools can’t enforce a dress code based on gender at graduation and in yearbook photos. Girls can’t be required to wear dresses under graduation gowns and boys can’t be stopped from wearing dresses in their yearbook photos. 
  • Students cannot have different dress code standards applied to them because of their race or other factors. If students are allowed to wear rosaries, all students must be allowed to wear them. If students are allowed to wear the color red, that policy must be enforced equally across the student body.  Learn more in our Proud to be Brown Report
Public schools cannot have gender-based dress requirements for graduation and yearbook photos.
  • As with prom, schools can’t enforce a dress code based on gender. Girls can’t be required to wear dresses under graduation gowns and boys can’t be stopped from wearing dresses in their yearbook photos
  • Yearbooks can’t be censored by removing photos of gay students.
You have the right to wear religious, cultural and tribal regalias.

Learn about your rights when it come to preparing for your graduation ceremony by clicking here.

Other things to know:
  • You have the right not to be bullied or harassed. Your school is required to have a student harassment policy in place. Look in your student handbook or school district’s website for bullying and harassment policies, as well as procedures for filing a complaint or grievance.
  • Students have the right to establish Gay Straight Alliances. If your school has non-curricular clubs (like Key Club or Drama Club), you can form a GSA. Stopping a GSA or treating it differently from other clubs is illegal.