Student journalists are faced with tough questions when it comes to covering protests on their own campuses. In recent years, students have planned walkouts over racial injustice, LGBTQ issues, COVID policies, gun violence, and climate change while teachers have gone on strike over pay and class size, No matter what kind of protest, or the issue in question, you need to know your legal rights. We can help.
Contact the Student Press Law Center with questions and check out resources we’ve compiled to help you cover events at your school and in your community.
Covering teacher strikes FAQs:
The following is meant to help answer questions for student journalists who are covering the events unfolding inside their schools.
Covering walkouts and protests FAQs:
The following FAQs are meant to help answer questions for student journalists covering school walkouts and protests. If you’re covering a community protest, check out this guide instead.
Student media with specific questions not answered here are encouraged to contact our legal hotline at: www.splc.org/legalhelp.
Q: Can our student media organization report on 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.
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 … Read more
Q: Can our reporters physically cover (interview, take photos, etc.) a class walkout 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”). … Read more
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, 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… Read more
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.
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 … Read more
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 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.
Other SPLC tipsheets:
Avoiding (or surviving) confrontations while covering protests
Background for your reporting:
- First Amendment Rights for Student Protesters: A Resource — National Coalition Against Censorship
- Questions to Ask as Schools Weigh Response to Student Walkouts — Education Writers Association
- Let Them March: Schools Should Not Censor Students — Education Week
- How School WalkOuts Test Student Rights and School Responsibilities — National Public Radio