Washington Lawyer - August/September 2018 - 16
Emma Read, a 17-year-old senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax
County, Virginia, participated in several student-led school protests in the
months after the Parkland shooting.
WHEN I PARTICIPATED,
I REALLY FELT LIKE I
WAS USING MY FIRST
EMMA READ, 17
"When I participated, I really felt like I was using my First Amendment
right to protest," says Read, who will be attending Temple University in
Philadelphia. "I also heard a lot of speeches with perspectives that I didn't
expect to hear from, groups like Black Lives Matter. I started learning a lot
about how gun regulation isn't just about keeping schools safe. It's about
keeping everyone safe."
A HISTORY OF CAMPUS ACTIVISM
Read is hardly the first U.S. student to find herself in the middle of protests
in a school setting. Student-led protests became particularly popular in the
1960s, with mounting anger over the Vietnam War. Over the past few decades,
students have battled with school administrators over a variety of concerns,
from global (such as the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s) to local (strict
school dress codes). More recently, students have not only protested gun
violence, but also low teacher salaries, administrative policies and accountability, and racial inequality.
The most recent student protests have reignited debates about the appropriate
perimeters of First Amendment rights in schools. Schools continue to struggle
to balance several issues, such as how to allow speech but maintain discipline
and avoid favoring one content over another. As a society, we are once again
asking ourselves whether dissent speech is valued and, in the end, whether
it can be channeled to affect change.
And the overall question for school administrators, parents, teachers, and
students, whether they participated in protests or not, is, "What have we
"I think we have seen the power that can come from this generation when they
mobilize, and the multiple ways you can facilitate a supportive environment for
First Amendment expression without having to endorse or oppose a walkout,"
says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for policy and advocacy
at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
AD: Photo TK (Patrice)
Interestingly, the latest wave of student protests hit the country at the same
time that First Amendment experts have expressed growing concern over
whether the younger generations still care about free speech.
Experts worry that young people appear little interested in open discussion
and, instead, sometimes disrupt speakers with views they don't like. In
October, for example, activists chanting "black lives matter" at the College
of William and Mary in Virginia temporarily silenced a speaker from the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). And there's an ongoing debate on
college and law school campuses as to how far universities should go in
restricting hate speech.
"My perception is that there is at least one generation, perhaps two, that no
longer sees the value in the historical free speech paradigm of an exchange
of ideas," says Stephen Wermiel, who teaches constitutional law at American
University Washington College of Law. "What we don't know is whether the
post-Parkland protests and foment reflect a newly revived appreciation [of]
the value of speech and the value of dissent."
Patrice Gilbert Photography
Read says she met students at the protests arguing in favor of the Second
Amendment, and she stopped to listen to them.
"It was interesting to hear what they had to say even if I didn't agree with them,"
Read says. "It was important to recognize that this was an exchange of ideas.
I wanted to hear what the other side was saying, and seeing them face to face