Throughout American history, students have participated and often times lead protests that ignited social movements and ultimately led to social change. In Mississippi, students played an integral part in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, a group of students, known as the Tougaloo Nine, organized and participated in Mississippi’s first “sit-in” in a public facility. Their actions of civil disobedience helped to abolish the Jim Crow laws of the South.
In 1965 during the Vietnam War, a group of students wore black armbands to school in silent protest of the war. The protest of these students, led to the Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that held students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Since February 14, 2018, students have been raising their voices, including by organizing walkouts at various high schools and middle schools across the country, to support the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and in hopes of changing gun policies to prevent gun violence and another mass shooting. As we approach one-month since the school shooting in Parkland, we expect more students to walk out in solidarity and in remembrance of the 17 slain students and faculty, and to encourage change.
We, at the ACLU of Mississippi, understand that this is a trying time for everyone, including educators, as you balance the education and safety of the students with the right of the students to free speech.
Although students do not have the same free speech rights on campus as they do off campus, we ask that you consider the message behind the protests and the lessons that can be taught during them. Indeed, working with and supporting the students in their activism would further the schools’ purpose of educating the young for citizenship. We must be careful “not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 637 (1943).
Furthermore, we hope everyone recognizes that many of the liberties and freedoms that we have today were made possible because of protests in the past.
We encourage all educators to practice sound judgment and discretion when handling student activism.
The ACLU of Mississippi