FAQ: Know Your Rights in School

September 23, 2014

The Labor Day barbecues have been cleaned up. The “Back to School” sections at local stores have been wiped out. For the younger ones, bedtimes are being enforced and lunches are packed. The 2013-2014 school year has officially started.

I wish you all the best this school year but, in case you hit some bumps along the way, here is a crash course on your rights as a student.

This overview of student rights should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a specific question, you should check with the ACLU or a lawyer.

Can I express my views at school?
Yes, you have a constitutional right to express yourself outside of the classroom unless it causes a “material and substantial disruption” to class or other school activities. That means that you can't be silenced just because your message is might be offensive, unpopular, controversial, or draws attention.

The famous Supreme Court case on student speech is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. In that case, the ACLU defended a group of students who were suspended for silently wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Learn more...

Here in Michigan, we've defended students' free speech rights many times. When school officials sent Bretton Barber home for wearing a political t-shirt, we stepped in. When administrators deleted Abbey Mohler's yearbook message because it included a quotation from the Bible, we were there.

It's important to know that you are not protected if you use threats, abusive language, or obscene speech. If you believe you've been unjustly censored by your school contact the ACLU of Michigan.

Want to learn more about free speech in schools?

What about on my Facebook page or Twitter account?
If you post something during school hours, on school property, and/or through the use of school property, you must abide by school rules about speech. Also threats, harassment, and obscene speech are not protected.

While the ACLU believes students have the right to express their views about school and other issues on social media when they are off campus, some school districts also have policies about off-campus speech. It’s always best to be aware of your school and district policies about online activity and to contact the ACLU if you believe the school rules violate your rights.

Can I demonstrate at school? What about handing out flyers?
Yes, students have a general First Amendment right to demonstrate at school as long as it is not disruptive

Some school districts have policies about when, where, and how to organize these protests. You can get in trouble for demonstrations that disrupt classes, block hallways, or encourage students to miss class, or happen inside of class.

The rules for handing out flyers expressing a view or announcing an event are similar. You have a right to distribute most flyers as long as they aren’t disruptive, but your school probably has rules about when, where, and how to do so.

Can I start an Atheist Club or a Christian Club? A Gay/Straight Alliance?
Administrators can't prevent groups from forming or meeting on campus just because they don’t support the group. If your school allows any student group to form or use school facilities for meetings or other activities, they must allow all student groups the same opportunity.

Do I have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? What about a prayer before a football game?
No. Michigan law requires an opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, but teachers can't force you to say the pledge or punish you for remaining silent. You also have the right to refuse to rise during the pledge and to refuse to salute the flag. If you refuse to do so, teachers can't force you to leave the room.

As for prayer, while students are free to pray on their own, it's unconstitutional for any school official, including coaches, to encourage or lead prayer or any other religious activity. Your school also may not invite religious leaders to lead prayer for school activities, including those that occur after school hours, such as a football game.

Can my school tell me what to wear and how to do my hair?
It depends. Schools can prohibit vulgar and lewd speech, including on clothing, and they can ban gang-related apparel and clothing that contains pictures or words that encourage illegal drug use. However, unless there is good reason to think that a substantial disruption will occur, schools cannot prohibit clothing that makes a political or religious statement, such as a t-shirt that criticizes the President or an arm band worn to protest against a war.

Schools can establish reasonable rules about hairstyles and grooming. However, they cannot discriminate against you based on race, sex, or religion.

Can I be searched at school? What about my locker?
Schools can't search your clothes or your personal belongings such as your backpack or purse, or even your cell phone unless they have a specific reason to suspect you of violating a law or a school rule. Even then, the search must be reasonably calculated to uncover evidence of the violation and can't be too intrusive of your privacy.

Some courts have held that your locker is not subject to these limits because it is the property of the school.

Can my school drug test me?
Your school cannot drug test everyone who goes to your school. However, the Supreme Court ruled schools can drug test students who choose to participate in some after-school activities.

Can my school suspend or expel me without an explanation or hearing?
No. Even as a student, you have a right to due process and an opportunity to defend yourself.

Before a school can suspend or expel you, you must be informed of what rule or policy you are being accused of violating and why, and you must also have a chance to tell your side of the story. For suspensions lasting longer than ten days, a formal hearing is required.

Key News and Documents
Know Your Rights When Facing School Discipline
The ACLU of Michigan & Student Rights

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