Do Students Have Legal Rights to Protest During School?

By Ceylan Pumphrey, Esq. on March 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Although it may not always feel like it, students do have certain rights at school. These student rights are generally in line with the rights afforded to all U.S. citizens by the U.S. Constitution. But, when in school, students do have limitations to those rights.

For example, while students have a general right to privacy, this right ends if there are safety concerns. And although students don't lose their First Amendment right to free speech when they walk through the door of their school, there are limits to those rights. So, what legal rights do students really have at school, and is protesting during the school day one of those rights?

Right to Free Speech ... Sort Of

Free speech covers anything from actually speaking to wearing expressive clothing to protesting. As discussed above, students don't automatically lose the rights afforded to them by the U.S. Constitution when they're at school, but their rights do become limited.

For example, if the school has a content-neutral policy regarding the dress code, it's within the school's rights to punish a student if the student wears something that doesn't fit in with the dress code. For clarification purposes, "content-neutral" means that a school is allowed to prohibit students from wearing tank tops, but it can't prohibit them from wearing only pro-NRA or pro-Communism tank tops.

Participating in a Protest

When it comes to students exercising their free speech rights by participating in a protest, things get a little trickier. Outside of school, students generally have the same legal right to protest as do non-students. But if a student decides to protest during school hours, he or she may end up getting in trouble.

Schools have the right to punish students for missing class, so if students participate in a protest while class is in session, they should anticipate being disciplined. It's important to note, however, that a school isn't permitted to punish a student more harshly because of the protest's message. So, when deciding whether or not you want to participate in a protest during one of your classes, you may want to review your school's policy on unexcused absences to find out the consequences for missing class.

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