Many news outlets seemed surprised that young people would seize the opportunity to assert themselves as leaders. They shouldn’t be. Students have long been at the forefront of social movements, risking punishment both inside and outside schools for their activism. As leaders in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, students not only proved their ability to pursue social change, but also ultimately secured the legal rights of students to speak out at public schools today.
Courts played an important role in protecting students from the start. In May 1963, more than 1,000 students from public schools across Birmingham marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to city hall in support of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham Campaign. Defying their principals and, in many cases, their parents, young people risked arrest, expulsion and physical harm to lend their voices and bodies to challenge racial segregation.
Participating in these protests posed a high risk but promised an even greater reward. Nightly news broadcasts showed young men and women in their Sunday best, singing hymns and civil rights anthems, then being viciously attacked by police officers wielding fire hoses, police dogs and nightsticks. President John F. Kennedy later remarked that the images of police brutality in Birmingham made him “sick.” Many other Americans across the country felt similarly as public opinion shifted in support of civil rights reforms — including the Civil Rights Act, which Congress passed the following year — in the wake of the Birmingham Campaign.
Despite the political benefit, students faced discipline at school for their involvement. The Birmingham board of education suspended the 1,000 students who had been arrested for the remainder of the school year. It took a lawsuit led by prominent civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley and a court order to reinstate the students in the schools, allowing them to complete the school year and ensuring that seniors would graduate on time.
By the late 1960s, protests at high schools increased as teenagers began seeing themselves as agents of change and a growing political force. The civil rights movement and the involvement of young people in direct action campaigns inspired other students to bring their own protests to school. In hundreds of schools across the nation, students launched walkouts, stood in picket lines and wore symbols in support of issues that included changing school dress codes and opposition to the Vietnam War.
And again, protesting students faced resistance from adults, including school administrators, parents, lawmakers and judges. They were suspended, expelled and arrested for their words and actions. But their protests forced local elected officials to acknowledge their grievances.
In 1968, more than 10,000 students walked out of their schools in a protest to challenge discriminatory policies and practices toward Mexican American students in Los Angeles public schools. Thirteen people were arrested for “conspiracy” in relation to these East L.A. “blowouts.” In the short term, the students did not win many concessions from the school board.
But the courts eventually threw out the indictments, and the students’ persistence persuaded a majority of school board members to reinstate Sal Castro, a teacher fired for his role in leading the student walkout. In the wake of the protests, the enrollment of Mexican American students rose at local colleges and universities.
Such activism hinged on students claiming their First Amendment rights in public schools. And once again, the courts sided with the students. In the landmark 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, recognizing that young people can and do have political beliefs, the Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” At the same time, the court emphasized that protected protest activity cannot “materially and substantially” disrupt the school day.
Not all Supreme Court justices agreed with the decision. In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Hugo Black stated that children are too immature to express any political opinions that the First Amendment is bound to respect. In sum, Black concluded that “taxpayers send children to school on the premise that, at their age, they need to learn, not teach.”
In subsequent rulings, the court has dramatically narrowed the free speech protections afforded to students. In one such case in 2007, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that the court should dispense with Tinker entirely. In the originalist interpretation of Justice Thomas, “the Constitution does not afford students a right to free speech in public schools.”
Young people who participate in protests at school will inevitably face resistance, particularly if their words and actions disrupt the regular school day. On this issue, the Supreme Court has been clear. But in Tinker, the court also emphasized that students “in school, as well as out of school, are ‘persons’ under our Constitution” and therefore “possessed of fundamental rights,” including the First Amendment right to express themselves.
This week, as they did in Alabama and Los Angeles 50 years ago, student protesters have forced Americans to have difficult conversations about the nation’s future. Young people often have a greater sense of the possibilities for change than their elders do and less concern about the short-term consequences of seeking long-term reforms.
History provides numerous examples of young people who believed that taking a stand on particular issues was worth the risk of disciplinary action. Students who participate in direct action campaigns and acts of civil disobedience have always confronted this calculus. Students must decide for themselves whether participating in a national walkout is aligned with their values and their beliefs about the common good.
In any case, young people in public schools deserve the right to be heard. Most cannot yet vote, but they can voice beliefs and opinions in other ways. Perhaps now is the time for students, who are the most affected by school shootings, to contribute their own ideas for change. Assuredly, many adults will be listening.