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Students protesting climate policy do have rights

On March 15, students around the world plan to strike in order to highlight the global climate crisis and urge leaders to act. Many participants will be skipping school to engage in discussions, lobbying, protests and demonstrations.

Unfortunately, many of those students will be subject to discipline for missing school. In the United States, however, even students have constitutional rights, if somewhat more limited ones than adults. And, public schools are considered state actors, so they may not unduly restrict students' constitutional rights, including free speech and assembly rights.

Can schools discipline students for taking part in the climate protest?

Yes, in part. According to the ACLU, schools are free to discipline students for missing school, but they may not issue harsher discipline than they otherwise would for absences. The political nature of the absence or the message behind the protest are not sufficient reasons for additional discipline.

Before you miss school, it's a good idea to find out your school district's policy on unexcused absences and whether your parent could excuse your absence for this purpose. Learn about the discipline your school district usually hands down for a single day's or a few hours' absence that have nothing to do with protests. That should be the maximum discipline you face.

If you plan to be absent longer for some reason, you should consider the possibility that you could be charged with truancy. Consider the penalties for truancy, and make sure you understand your district's policy on suspensions and expulsions. You may have the right to a formal process before you can be suspended or expelled.

How much can schools hamper students' free speech?

Again, students do have free speech rights even when they are in a school setting. You have the right to express your opinion by speaking, wearing expressive clothing and handing out flyers or petitions, for example. The limit on this is the school's reasonable opinion that the speech in question is "disruptive."

Naturally, what a school considers disruptive will vary, but it should be based on actual evidence of disruption, not the content of the speech or expression.

Restrictions on students' freedom of expression must generally be content-neutral, meaning the rule has nothing to do with any specific message a student wishes to communicate. Therefore, schools can generally enforce neutral dress codes but not ban particular messages.

Once you are off campus, you have the same rights as other people to protest and speak out on issues.

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