One of the most important rights we have in our democracy is the right to speak out on issues we care about. After 17 high school students and teachers were killed in Parkland, Florida on February 14, gun regulation quickly became one of the most discussed issues in the public sphere, and many students around the country began to speak out.
Lucky for them, the U.S. Constitution protects many types of protest. Generally, the First Amendment allows people to speak openly about political issues, as long as they don’t incite violence, make a threat, or break other laws.
Students do have a right to free speech, and do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. But there are some important things to keep in mind when exercising your right to speak.
Not all types of protest are protected by the Constitution. For example, protests in public schools are more heavily regulated, since schools have the important job of educating our country’s youth. Public schools are allowed to regulate school-sponsored speech, speech that is vulgar/offensive/obscene, speech that causes a disruption in school, speech that interferes with other students’ rights, speech that incites illegal activity or celebrates drug use, or speech that makes false personal attacks.
Acts of civil disobedience, when someone breaks a law to make a political point, are not protected by the Constitution.
Throughout history, civil disobedience has been a powerful tool for people – especially marginalized people – to get their issues heard when no other methods have worked. Lunch counter sit-ins protesting Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus during the Civil Rights movement, young men burning their draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War, Gordon Hirabayashi refusing to report to a Japanese-American internment camp – these are examples of civil disobedience. All these people were intentionally breaking the laws of the time in order to show how unjust those laws were.
But consider yourself warned: When you break the law to make your point, you’re still breaking the law, and you may get in trouble. However, the government cannot punish you more harshly than if you were breaking the law for any other reason.
If you hang a flyer where it’s not allowed, and the flyer happens to discuss a political issue, you’ve still hung a flyer where it’s not allowed.
If you skip class, and you happen to be talking about a political issue while you do it, you’ve still skipped class.
School walkouts, blocking traffic/highways, and chaining yourself to buildings are generally considered civil disobedience, so if you’re planning to do these things, make sure you’re prepared to face the consequences.
Types of speech and protest that are protected by the Constitution include:
- Holding a sign on the sidewalk while you allow people to pass
- Getting a permit that allows you to block the sidewalk or be in the street
- Distributing flyers in your school
- Wearing a t-shirt with a political message on it
And let’s be clear: civil disobedience is not the same thing as violence. Blocking an intersection during rush hour to protest a police killing is civil disobedience. Kicking a police officer to protest a police killing is violence. Both are breaking the law, but only one is violent.
As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”