High School Students’ Rights: How to speak your mind without getting suspended

By Damon Krane and Lisa O’Keefe
Free Student Press pamphlet to promote first outreach event
August 10, 1999

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YOU DO HAVE THE RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH AT SCHOOL… EVEN THOUGH IT DOESN’T ALWAYS SEEM LIKE IT.

As an American citizen, you have certain constitutional rights which the government cannot take away. The First Amendment guarantees your right to free speech and expression – the right to make your opinions known without being punished. HOWEVER, try voicing an opinion critical of your school’s administration, and you’ll probably end up in detention. Try writing your opinions in the school newspaper, and you’ll find that your writing can be legally censored if school officials feel it’s “inappropriate.” (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988)

So why is it that school officials don’t want you to speak your mind? Is it because you may have problems with how your school is run? Do you often wonder what you’re learning has to do with your interests or the world around you? Does the atmosphere at school seem to stifle any desire to learn, be creative, or think critically? Do you resent being within a school system that mistreats you, then wonders why you don’t like to be there?

WHAT DO WE REALLY LEARN IN SCHOOL?

Regardless of the class or subject matter, one lesson remains the same: being “good” means doing what you are told, whether you agree with it or not. The threats of detention, suspension, and expulsion teach you that challenging authority is bad. Whether you’re a ‘good” student or a ‘bad” student, you learn to follow their rules or face the consequences,

As a student, you have no part in making the rules you must follow. That’s why schools are AUTHORITARIAN. Authoritarianism is the opposite of democracy. In a DEMOCRACY the rules that people are to live by are determined by the people who must live by them – with everyone having an equal say. But when was the last time you had any say in making the rules at your school? Our government prides itself on being a democracy, yet the school system it runs is far from democratic.

BUT WHY IS DEMOCRACY SO IMPORTANT WHEN IT COMES TO SCHOOL?

Democracy is not some abstract concept that has nothing to do with your life. Democracy simply means recognizing that everyone can think for themselves, so we should all work together to figure things out. But for the 12 years you’re in school you’re taught that it is not your place to shape the conditions that surround you, as if your ideas aren’t worth being heard.

School exists to prepare you for the future, yet one important part of that future is being left out. Whatever career you choose, whether or not you go to college, you will have the opportunity to take part in a democratic society and shape the world we live in. But at school you’re taught that change comes from the people in charge, not from you. As a result, school leaves you well-trained for a future of submitting to authority and accepting society’s injustices as unchangeable. Is that the kind of future that we want??

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BUT WHY SHOULD I CARE?

Because what you have to say IS IMPORTANT, and you are being taught the opposite. You go to school every weekday, for seven hours, and have virtually no say in the decisions that affect your life for the 12 years you are in school and the future it leads you to.

Everyday you witness a power structure based on inequality. Administrators dominate teachers, teachers dominate students, and eventually students come to dominate each other. School teaches you that dominating others is how you get what you want. The pattern of abuse we learn in school influences how we treat one another. This is not only true for students, but teachers as well. Many teachers are NOT out to make students’ lives miserable, but they end up doing so because an authoritarian school system expects them to be authoritarian teachers.

School exists for you, the students. Just think: if you didn’t go to school, teachers would be out of a job. You are the most valuable part of school. Therefore, your education ought to genuinely address your needs and concerns. You can make that happen, but only if you speak out and make your ideas known.

BUT WHAT CAN I DO?

While the past 15 years have seen increasing restrictions placed upon high school students, you do still have the crucial opportunity to make your voice heard.

In 1988, the Supreme Court made it legal for school officials to censor student expression in any school-sponsored production. HOWEVER, the Court made it clear that this only applies to school-sponsored productions. Your school’s newspaper can be censored, but if you create your own paper, school officials cannot prevent you from possessing and peacefully distributing your publication on school grounds. (You probably weren’t taught that in school!)

Without free speech there can be no democracy. People can’t have an equal say when some people aren’t allowed to say what they think. An independent student publication is a way to bring free speech back to school – by creating something that is for students, by students!!

No matter what you write about, it is worth writing because your opinion matters. Maybe you write poetry, comic strips, or you don’t write at all, but you’re into photography or drawing. However you choose to express yourself, if you can do it on paper, you can do it in an independent student publication!

If you are interested in learning more about independent student publishing, the students’ rights you aren’t being taught at school, and democracy in education, we at FREE STUDENT PRESS are sponsoring our first event:

Thursday, September 16 (1999)
6:30pm
at Baker Center
The Front Room

Come to share your ideas with others, and listen to guest speakers from the American Civil Liberties Unions, The Institution for Democracy in Education and others.

Did we mention that there will be free food and live music, too?

FREE STUDENT PRESS
…because 12 years is too long to be silenced.

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