Protesting: Do You Have Rights?


The recent school walk-outs for gun control reform have sparked conversation at KMHS. I heard some laments and political musings about the NRA, but I mostly just encountered frustrated students sick of having their “freedom of speech violated at school”. That struck me as odd: didn’t they know they don’t have freedom of speech rights protecting protest at school? The fact is student actions remain under the complete jurisdiction of the school and the administration has every right to reprimand student protestors to the degree of punishment that they see fit.

Almost a half-century ago, students and adults alike were protesting the confusing and violent Vietnam War. 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker and her 15-year-old brother John Tinker decided to wear black armbands with peace sign patches to school in protest. The school ultimately suspended the Tinker children and the ensued controversy surrounding their punishment transformed into a civil case, rising all the way to the Supreme Court as the infamous Tinker v. Des Moines. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the students’ armbands were not a distraction to the daily happenings of the school. “Symbolic protest”, like wearing t-shirts, armbands, buttons, or pins, became untouchable to schools across the country, with the exception of items containing profane language or allusions to illicit drug use.

Though some history and government classes may note the Tinker case as a proprietor of symbolic protest protection for students, the case is not necessarily the poster-child for freedom. Because the students in Des Moines did not disrupt the normal functions of the school, the court did not see any reason for the school’s overzealous punishment. However, combined with truancy laws, this case arms schools with the power to reprimand any students partaking in protests that distract from normal school activities.

Schools enforce a plethora of punishments for the fairly subjective standard of “distractibility”, but it’s within their rights. If you decide to protest, take caution in the type of protesting you plan to carry out and whether or not you’re willing to suffer the consequences for your cause. Most importantly, if you hear someone claim that their administration cannot violate their First Amendment rights to protest at school, make sure they know that the First Amendment does not cover school protest, but hey, Tinker v. Des Moines protects your right to wear an armband!