In response to the tragic shooting last month at their school, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have inspired high school students across the country to take action. They are leading a movement to fight for gun safety measures that affect young people inside and outside of schools. Some students are learning for the first time that their voices matter and that they can affect public policy.
These students join a long history of protest by young people in America. From the revolution through abolition and the civil rights movement, teenagers have often organized to change America for the better. Barbara Johns was 16 when she led her fellow African American high school students in a walkout to protest the inequality of segregated schools, one of the first sparks in a movement for change. Mary Beth Tinker was 13 when she wore a black armband to school in protest of the United States' involvement in Vietnam.
We write to remind you that this student activism is protected by the United States and Delaware Constitutions. As long as they are not lewd or vulgar, students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it substantially disrupts school functioning. Schools can have a neutral dress code. But outside of dress code violations, students can’t be considered disruptive for wearing t-shirts, armbands, or other clothes or accessories that bear political viewpoints just because someone may disagree with the views they express. Even when their conduct does create a substantial disruption, students still cannot be punished more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
We also write because, although there are constitutional limits, you exercise enormous discretion about what will happen to students who engage in walk-out protests. Whether you agree or disagree with the change these students want, you should appreciate the underlying spirit of civic engagement that motivates them. We hope you will nurture that spirit rather than suppress it.
A student movement of this magnitude comes along once in a generation. We urge you to use this chance to teach these students about the importance of participation in a democratic society.
The ACLU of Delaware
Student Walkout Resources: