Students, do you know your rights?

Student rights have changed over the years thanks to student activists who have fought for them. Do you know yours? Here's where to start.

By Danielle Balderas

In Parkland, Fla., students led March for Our Lives protests and school walkouts. In New York, eighth graders from Bronx Prep Middle School produced a podcast about menstrual periods. All over the U.S., students occasionally refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Each of these actions rest on past legal precedents that have secured students’ rights in public schools within the United States. 

For decades, students have challenged limitations placed on their free speech and freedom of expression. With the renewed activism of Gen Z – from protesting gun violence, to advocating for action on climate change, to raising awareness around mental health – it’s worth looking back at one of the most influential students’ rights cases in the last 50 years: Tinker v. Des Moines

The Free Speech Movement and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 

The Free Speech Movement catalyzed student activists in the mid-1960s, with UC Berkeley at the epicenter. Students at Berkeley pushed the boundaries of students’ rights on university campuses, fighting to secure their right to political activity and debate as university students. The Free Speech Movement’s ideals, and protests, were not confined to Berkeley or to universities. Younger students across the country, even junior-high students, also defined the spirit of the Free Speech Movement.  

In December 1965, Mary Beth Tinker (then a 13-year old junior-high student) and a group of fellow students in Des Moines, Iowa, collectively decided to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. The school’s response? They suspended the students. Tinker, and the others who were suspended, came back after winter break without the armbands, but donned black clothing for the rest of the year. They decided to file a First Amendment lawsuit, alleging that their First Amendment rights (freedom of speech and expression) had been infringed upon by their school. 

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in the students’ favor, writing that, “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker and her classmates secured a major victory for students’ First Amendment rights in public schools by denying school officials the ability to censor student speech (unless it’s deemed significantly disruptive to education). 

The Court’s ruling is a strong reminder of the inherent rights of students and minors in this country: 

“In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State.” 

As students across the country continue to engage in important civic activism, it’s crucial for students to understand the rights they do (and don’t) have in public school. If you want to dive deeper, the ACLU has great resources that break down students’ rights in each of the following categories:

  1. Speech rights: School officials cannot punish students for exercising their free speech rights.
  2. Dress codes: Schools cannot base dress codes on, or use them to discriminate against students’ religious beliefs, gender identity, or race and ethnicity. 
  3. Immigrant rights: Undocumented youth have the right to a free public education.
  4. Disability rights: Schools must provide the necessary accommodations for students with disabilities to fully participate in academic courses, field trips, extracurricular activities, and health services. 
  5. LGBTQ rights: Schools cannot discriminate against students for their sexual orientation or gender identity, and cannot “out” students to their families.  
  6. Pregnancy discrimination: Schools cannot discriminate against pregnant students, and must provide them the same accommodations they’re required to provide to any other student with a temporary medical condition. Schools are also barred from discriminating against students who decide to terminate a pregnancy. 

Want to learn more about your rights at school? Check out these resources:

Do you have a story to tell about students’ rights in your community? Email [email protected] or share on social by tagging @XQAmerica and #ReThinkHighSchool.