Covering Walk-outs and Protests

As students take the lead in the conversation about gun control in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, it’s important that student journalists also step up to cover these debates and protests. Along with voices being raised about gun violence, other types of protests are occurring on campuses as well. Whether you’re covering a march, a walk out, or an in-school protest, 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.

Tell the story. Know your rights.

Covering walk-outs and protests FAQs:

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.

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 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”).  … 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, 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… 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 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.

Read the full FAQs.

Other SPLC tipsheets:

Avoiding (or surviving) confrontations while covering protests

Responding to censorship

Background for your reporting:

2018 coverage by high school journalists:

Please send links of your coverage to dmk@splc.org
A roundup of how students journalists covered the March 24 March for Our Lives can be found here:

2018 coverage by college journalists

Please send links of your coverage to dmk@splc.org

SPLC news release:

NEWS RELEASE: Students walk out and the Student Press Law Center steps up: new resources launched to cover walk-outs and “March for Our Lives”

(Read online)

(PDF version)