How not to handle a student walkout.

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the school shooting in Columbine, and the first anniversary of the student walkout in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.  The students in Shawnee Mission organized a brief walkout as did thousands of other students across the country after the Parkland school massacre.  The students later sued the school district alleging that their First Amendment rights had been violated.  The district’s Motion to Dismiss the case has been denied.  There are lessons to be learned from this.

Lesson one: Don’t inform parents and students that the student walkout is not “school sponsored” and then, in the litigation, claim that it was.  Schools have more authority to restrict student speech in school sponsored publications, like the yearbook or the halftime show.  So in an effort to defend the actions of school administrators who shut down kids making speeches about gun control, the lawyers for the district argued that this walkout was “school sponsored.” It’s true that the walkout happened during school hours and was permitted to happen.  The school tolerated it, but that’s not the same as “sponsoring” it.  In fact, the lawsuit alleges that the school informed the parents in advance that the walkout was student-led, optional, and not sponsored by the school. 

Lesson two: If you permit students to organize a walkout over a controversial political issue, don’t try to restrict what they say in their speeches.  The district adopted some guidelines for what could be said during this walkout. Students were to avoid discussing guns, gun control or school shootings.  Instead, they were to focus on school safety.  The district’s spokesperson apparently thought that the school had to take this stance.  The lawsuit alleges that she said “As a public institution, we cannot take a stand one way or the other on Second Amendment rights.”  And yet, according to the suit, that’s exactly what the school did. When student speakers began talking about school shootings and advocating for gun control measures, they were shut down.  So the school could hardly claim neutrality with regard to “Second Amendment rights.”

Lesson Three: The Tinker standard is alive and well.  The court applied the “material and substantial disruption” test to this situation, and found that the allegations in the suit indicated that there was no “reasonable forecast” of such a disruption. These student walkouts were limited in time and specifically permitted to occur.  In fact, the district informed the parents that no students would be disciplined for participating. 

It’s interesting to note that what seems to begin with a school effort to encourage students to exercise their Free Speech rights ends up with a lawsuit alleging that the school infringed on those rights. But if the allegations in the suit prove to be true, that’s exactly what happened.  You can’t allow a protest and then dictate what opinions the protesters will express.

The case isn’t over and we shall see what happens next.  There is another issue in this particular ruling that bears on student journalists. We will take that one up on Monday. 

The case is M.C. v. Shawnee Mission USD No. 512, decided by the federal court for Kansas on January 28, 2019.  We found it at 2019 WL 339545.


The Dawg barks again on Monday.