Since the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students have been re-claiming their future and demanding change. Students are walking out of class and protesting, using their voices and power. The buzz is building and the stories are personal. Student media has a vital role to play in covering these stories.
Every day, the Student Press Law Center is receiving inquiries from student media, asking about how to cover the walk-outs going on now, and planning for the March for Our Lives rallies across the country on March 24 and national walk-out on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. The following FAQs are meant to help answer questions for student journalists covering this important story. It will be updated as needed. Student media with specific questions not answered here are encouraged to contact us at: www.splc.org/legalhelp.
Q: Can our student media organization report on March for Our Lives and similar protests/gatherings even though such events may advocate disruptive tactics such as walking out of class?
A: At a public school, you can certainly report on the march and what’s behind it, but remember, the rules are different for private schools.
Gun violence in schools and the emerging student response is clearly a newsworthy and editorially appropriate topic for student media. You can report, for example, the facts behind what has prompted the March and other demonstrations. You can report on how and why this response is different from what we’ve seen in the past, how it was organized by students primarily through social media, the logistics and growing support behind the March and what the law says about student rights to participate in such events. As always, as long as you stick to what you learned in Journalism 101 about ethics, accuracy, fairness, balance, etc., you have the right to cover this as you would cover any other bona fide news story.
Warning: You need to be careful not to cross the line between reporting and advocating or suggesting that students at your school take part in an activity that could significantly interfere with normal school activities.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and, in some cases, state lawmakers, have determined that students have the right to engage in lawful, peaceful speech on campus during the school day. A key part of existing law, however, is that school officials retain the authority to ensure the orderly operation of their schools and that speech that presents a genuine and serious threat to normal school activities — including a class walkout during the school day or a published column that advocates participation in such a walk-out — can lawfully be suppressed or punished.
As the March for Our Lives will take place on a Saturday — generally a non-school day — student media should be able to cover or publish opinions advocating for participation in that event without it raising questions about interfering with the school day.
Q: Can our reporters physically cover (interview, take photos, etc.) a class walk-out or similar student demonstration?
A: Presumably there are procedures already in place at your school for student reporters covering off-campus events. Follow those procedures. Treat this story as you would any other off-campus event. School officials must also treat this as any other news story. At a public school, it is generally a legal no-no for a school official to tell a reporter or photographer that they can’t cover specific topics or stories (we call that “prior-restraint”). While they might have some legal authority to restrict publication of a finished story, school officials generally can’t censor the idea or pursuit of a story ahead of time.
When you are at an event, remember your role as a journalist. You are there to witness and report on the event, not to participate. If you have a press pass or clothing that identifies you as a reporter, make sure you wear those.
The Student Press Law Center is taking extra measures as student walk-outs continue, and as momentum gains leading up to the March 24 Marches for Our Lives around the country. If you have questions about your plan to cover these events, you can contact the Legal Hotline or, for emergency help, call 202-785-5450.
While we hope and anticipate that these events will be peaceful, we urge all student media to take reasonable precautions so that you are prepared to respond if that changes.
To brush up on best practices and reporting tips about covering protests and other “hot” news scenes, check out SPLC’s Tip Sheet about covering protests, available at the bottom of this page.
Q: What if we’re censored?
A: Sadly, censorship has become a common occurrence for many working on school-sponsored student media so we have a number of tried and true responses to combat it, which you can read about in our Fighting Censorship Checklist. As the checklist points out, the law is only one tool for contesting censorship. Fortunately, in 2018, you have many speech tools available — used quite effectively by students and march organizers — which school officials have no or limited authority to restrict.
Q: Can students be punished for taking part in a class walkout or other demonstration that significantly interferes with school?
A: Yes. While the First Amendment does protect the rights of students to engage in speech activities, those rights are not unlimited. Part of the balance the Supreme Court struck in its 1969 landmark ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines was that while it protected the students’ right to wear armbands to school and to engage in other forms of peaceful protest, the Court said school officials could still censor two types of student speech: (1) Unlawful speech (things such as libel or obscenity) or (2) Speech that created — or would more than likely create — a serious, physical disturbance that interfered with normal school activities. Clearly, walking out of class during the school day — unlike quietly wearing an armband or taking a knee at a football game — interferes with normal school activities. While nothing in the law requires that school officials dole out punishment, students who participate in such activities should not expect the First Amendment to protect them from the normal punishments issued against them if they miss class for unexcused reasons.
Warning: We have started receiving reports of schools threatening “extra” punishment for students participating in a class walkout. That won’t fly. In fact, in one of its most recent student speech cases, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that political speech by students is entitled to more — not less — First Amendment protection. We urge anyone with information about threats of extra punishment to contact us at the Student Press Law Center.
Q: Are you saying students shouldn’t participate in such protests?
A: Of course not. Every individual must make up his/her own mind about whether, when and how to take a stand. History — thankfully for those of us living today — is full of changemakers willing to challenge the status quo, often in the face of existing “rules” and at great personal risk. In 1965, for example, the Des Moines school board adopted a last minute rule to stop siblings John and Mary Beth Tinker from wearing black armbands to school to demonstrate their opposition to the Vietnam War. Their brave acts of consciousness — Mary Beth today talks about how, at 13 years old, she used “just the little bit of courage she had” — resulted in the the 1969 Supreme Court ruling that continues to protect lawful, peaceful student protests today.
Warning: If students walk out of school or otherwise seriously disrupt school, they are subject to school punishment. It’s up to each student to decide whether that risk is worth it — or whether there is a non-disruptive alternative to a walkout that perhaps serves the same purpose. Students can be extraordinarily creative when they put their minds to it. (For example, we just saw a story about an elementary school student wearing a mock bulletproof vest to school, a 2018 variation on the Tinker armband.)
Q: What are the ramifications for teachers who want to walk out of school with students during the school day?
A: As school employees, teachers should proceed cautiously. There are few legal protections available to protect school employees who leave their assigned posts without permission during the school day.
Q: I’m not a student journalist, but I am a student who would like to join my classmates participating in this march. Where can I go if I have questions or concerns?
A: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Lawyers Guild are two organization focused on civil rights that may be able to help.
Q: Anything else?
A: Please send us links to your stories related to the March for Our Lives and related events to email@example.com. We will collect and provide a public list of student media coverage. Help us make this a long, long list. It is time to show the power of new voices.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the nation’s only legal assistance organization devoted exclusively to supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship and educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment. A nonpartisan 501c(3), the SPLC provides free legal resources and information as well as low-cost educational materials for student journalists on a wide variety of topics at www.splc.org.
The SPLC was the primary sponsor of the Tinker Tour, a 2013-14 nationwide free speech/press bus tour featuring Mary Beth Tinker, who in the fall of 2013 spoke to students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and urged them to “say what the need to say.” Tinker was a plaintiff in the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case in which the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 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.”