By Random Pendragon
Students around the country, including Keizer, are taking to the streets to change the conversation around school safety, but students can feel especially vulnerable to the whims of adults who believe other priorities should come first.
The American Civil Liberties Union is spreading the word on how and when students can safely protest, and what to expect when they run afoul of the rules.
On Thursday, March 1, the ACLU held a live video seminar called Students! Know Your Protest Rights to inform potential student protestors in the wake of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 14 students and three staff members.
Among many local protests throughout the country, two nationwide protests have been planned for March. The first, a walkout, took place on Wednesday, March 14. Students at Claggett Creek and Whiteaker middle schools and McNary High School took part.
The second major event will be the March For Our Lives protest on Saturday, March 24. Salem area students will take part in with a planned protest at the state Capitol. Supporters will gather at 11 a.m. at the steps to listen to speakers before the event begins at 11:30 a.m. The goal is to pressure Congress into passing stricter gun safety legislation.
In a press release, the organizers of the Salem activities wrote, “We, the students, faculty, and families from Salem schools and universities, have decided that this moment is too crucial and this issue too urgent to stand idly by.”
The ACLU maintains that the free speech rights of students still apply during school. The organization cites the decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969, when Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The case involved students who, in protest of the Vietnam War, wore black armbands to school. Five of them were suspended for the action. The ruling declared the singling out and suspension of these students for a non-disruptive protest to be unconstitutional in accordance with the first and fourteenth amendments.
In the court’s opinion, Fortas wrote that while controversial discussion may be considered a disruption, “Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk … and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom – this kind of openness – that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans.”
On the subject of walkouts specifically, the ACLU lawyers stress that schools are not able to punish protesters who miss class any differently than other instances of truancy would be punished. This means that while students can be marked with an absence and face the consequences of that absence, they can not be given blanket suspensions or other punishments based on the ideas or act of walking out in protest.
Ben Wizner, ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project director, said, given the amount of advance notice for these protests, nonstandard punishment would be “draconian…, excessive, and possibly illegal.”
In the talk, Wizner said, despite their focus on rules, “sometimes, for good reasons, people decide to break the rules… and in fact, the history of social change in our country involves people getting together to engage in civil disobedience.”
“Outside of school, you enjoy the same rights to protest and speak as anyone else,” Vera Eidelman said, she also works on the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “It’s important to engage with really hard issues, rather than silencing or censoring them.”
Keizer is no stranger to student protests. In January 2005, students held a sit-in of McNary’s commons to stand with teachers seeking better pay. In May 2006, students from McNary partook in nationwide protests against changes in immigration law. Eleven years later, in 2017, McNary students, in solidarity with other schools around the state, marched on the capital to demand that an act protecting Dreamers be passed. Most recently, in November, students went to the capital to protest mandatory reporting changes for the Salem-Keizer School District, sparking a national conversation on school policy, consent laws, and teen sexuality.
The ACLU’s full talk and more information can be found at https://goo.gl/t87aFk. They also encourage anyone who feels their civil liberties have been infringed to contact them at https://www.aclu.org/contact-us.