A nationwide, student initiated call to action is circulating on social media calling for students and teachers to walkout of their schools for 17 minutes at 10:00 a.m. on March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 people killed in the February 14, 2018, school shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
School administration responses have varied in the face of news that their students are planning to participate in the walkout, from support for the protest, to threats of discipline for those who participate. The leading case on the rights of students to protest at school is the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community Sch. Dist., which upheld the right of students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. The Court held that students had First Amendment rights, as long as the protest does not materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school.
Whether a 17 minute walkout constitutes a material and substantial disruption may be open to question, there is a strong argument that students could be disciplined or preemptively prohibited from participating. However, so far the schools that have gotten out in front of the movement with threats of discipline have earned negative publicity. An alternative, and in our view more practical approach being planned in some schools, is to treat the walkout as a “teachable moment” and gain a measure of control over the “time, place and manner” of the walkout. Coordinating the event in advance with teachers and student leaders can result in less disruption, and a safer experience for those who decide to participate and those who refrain from participating. A safety plan could also include law enforcement and other first responders, especially if students will be outside the school and adjacent to public areas. By honoring students’ desire for participation in the political process, the school can hopefully avoid becoming “the enemy” and lessen the disruption and lingering hard feelings (and possibly legal costs) that might occur if the walkout is strongly opposed by the school administration. If questions arise about the rights of students and teachers, be sure to check in with your NMP attorney.