This content is intended to serve as general information; it is not legal advice nor intended as legal advice.
Do I have First Amendment rights in school?
Yes. You do not lose your right to free speech just by walking into school. You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school — as long as you don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school’s content-neutral policies.
However, your First Amendment rights in school are not absolute. Schools can regulate speech for two reasons. First, schools can impose reasonable rules to regulate the “time, place, and manner” of expression. For example, a school can have a rule that you can't circulate a petition during class time. These rules exist to prevent disruption to your education.
What counts as “disruptive” will vary by context, but a school disagreeing with your position, or thinking your speech is controversial or in “bad taste,” is not enough to make it disruptive. Courts have upheld students’ rights to wear things like an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion, and a shirt supporting the LGBTQ community. You can look up the rules for student expression in your school’s student code of conduct or your district’s board policies.
Second, schools can impose “content-neutral” rules limiting certain categories of speech when they have a good pedagogical reason. Content-neutral policies are rules that have nothing to do with the message you’re expressing, but restrict an entire category or action. For example, a school can prohibit students from wearing any shirts with text on them because the rule applies uniformly regardless of what someone’s shirt says.
A school can’t restrict the message of your speech unless your speech falls into certain categories, such as if it is lewd or offensive, causes substantial disruption, or promotes drug use. So, if your school allows shirts with messages, it has to allow a t-shirt with any other message, such as “Gay Pride.” A school disagreeing with your position or thinking your speech is controversial is not enough to make your speech disruptive or offensive.
Can I organize a protest in school?
It depends on what activities you have planned and when the protest will take place. Remember, your school can adopt reasonable rules about the “time, place, and manner” of expression, and your school can limit activities that will substantially disrupt the orderly operation of school. But, you can organize a peaceful, orderly protest before or after school — and, you can tell people about it, as long as you're not interrupting class to do so. If you're planning a protest, you should check your school district's written rules about speech by looking up the rules in your student code of conduct or your district's board policies for student expression. And remember, your town or city may have separate time, place, and manner requirements, like permits, so be sure to check those rules if you're planning a protest off-campus.
Can my school discipline me for participating in a walkout?
Yes. Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class. You can be subject to those consequences, even if you're leaving to participate in a protest.
But schools cannot discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action. For example, if the normal consequence for leaving school without permission is detention, your school can't suspend you for participating in a walkout. And, you should be given the same right to make up work as any other student who has an unexcused absence for the class you missed.
The exact punishment you could face will vary by your school district. Find out more by reading the policies of your school and school district. If you’re planning to miss a class or two, look at the policy for unexcused absences. If you’re considering missing several days, read about truancy. And either way, take a look at the policy for suspensions.
Under Texas law, if your school wants to suspend you, they have to identify the behavior as a "suspendable" offense in your student code of conduct. If you are facing a suspension of 10 days or more, you have a right to a formal process and can be represented by a lawyer.
Texas has decriminalized truancy, so if your walkout lasts more than three days or parts of days. you can’t be arrested just for participating in a prolonged walkout. But your school counselor will be required to meet with you and implement truancy prevention measures if you miss class for three days of parts of days in a four week period.
If your protest lasts more than 10 days, you might face more severe consequences. Under Texas law, you could be referred to truancy court or your parents could have a criminal complaint filed against them when you miss 10 or more days or parts of days within a six month period.
Find out the rules so you can tell if they are being applied differently when it comes to your walkout. If you are punished unfairly, you and your parent/guardian have the right to make informal and formal complaints to your school district. Check out your student code of conduct for information about the complaint and grievance process.
What about for protesting away from school?
Outside of school, you enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else. This means you’re likely to be most protected if you organize, protest, and advocate for your views off campus and outside of school hours.
What are my rights on social media?
You have the right to speak your mind on social media. Generally, your school cannot punish you for content you post off campus and outside of school hours that does not cause a substantial and material disruption to the school. Some schools have attempted to extend their power to punish students even for off-campus, online posts. While courts have differed on the constitutionality of those punishments, the ACLU has challenged such attempts as overreach.
If you believe your constitutional rights to free speech have been violated, you can file a complaint with the ACLU of Texas.
Do I still have rights in private or charter schools?
Yes, you do! While the information above applies primarily to public schools, you do not lose all your rights by attending a private or charter school. While the Constitution does not apply to private schools if they are not state actors, these schools are still bound by state and federal laws. If the school receives federal funding, then you are protected by federal nondiscrimination laws like Title VI and Title IX, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and sex. Even if your school doesn’t receive any federal funding, you still have some legal rights under Texas state laws and the school’s own policies, which sometimes form a contract with you and your parents or guardians.