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Student Rights and the Freedom of Expression

February 24, 2019 marks the 50-year anniversary of the decision in the landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines. While that decision established an important precedent concerning students’ free speech rights on school grounds, these same rights continue to be challenged in 21st century American schools. Following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, thousands of students across the United States became activists fighting against gun violence. Their participation in school walkouts and leaving class to participate in local protests has raised questions about the extent of students’ free speech rights and how to balance the First Amendment with the need for order in the classroom. In Montgomery County, Maryland, students who left the classroom last year to protest against gun violence were hit with unexcused absences. However, they have since successfully pressed the school board to grant each student three excused days a year to engage in a protest or other civic engagement activity. Objectives:

  • Students will examine how the Supreme Court has previously ruled on student rights and the First Amendment
  • Students will form an understanding of what rights they possess when they are at school


Warm-up Activity (20 minutes) Directions: Have students read Handout A and answer the following questions:

  1. The Supreme Court has drawn some distinctions between the First Amendment rights that ordinary citizens possess and those that students possess. Do you think this is fair?
  2. The Supreme Court initially ruled that students do not lose their “rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” in the Tinker v. Des Moines However, in later cases it ruled that there are some limitations to what students can say. Why do you think it did this?

Activity (30 minutes) Directions: Have students read Handout B and use the following questions to lead a class discussion:

  1. What do the students in Montgomery County want the school board to grant them?
  2. What constitutional rights do they believe are at stake?
  3. Based on your understanding of the First Amendment and previous Supreme Court rulings, should students be given excused days off in order to protest or engage in civic activities?

Follow-up Activity. The Bill of Rights Institute hosted a webinar featuring John Tinker, one of the plaintiffs in the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case. You can watch the recording here and learn about Tinker’s experiences and thoughts on the state of students’ free speech rights today.