By Robert Romano
Indivisible.org is at it again, openly organizing more than 2,300 school walkouts on April 19 and April 20 to call for a “nationwide protest of our leaders’ failure to pass laws that protect us from gun violence,” urging more nationwide gun control laws in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. massacre in February.
The purpose of the protest is purely about electoral politics, with the organizers saying, “if cowardly politicians fail to act, young people will show them the consequences of letting so many Americans die by voting them out in November.”
Republicans have majorities in both the House and Senate, and “vote them out” appears to be specifically directed at them. But even if you wanted to say it wasn’t purely partisan, it is still is certainly about organizing voters towards a political objective.
The real question is why are these political protests occurring during school hours? Why can’t they happen after school or over the weekends when they won’t be so disruptive? How many walkouts are they planning this year? Isn’t this disrupting academic studies?
And why are State Attorneys General putting up with it?
For example, in South Carolina, more than a dozen such school walkouts are planned. Yet according to Title 16 – Crimes and Offenses, Chapter 17 – OFFENSES AGAINST PUBLIC POLICY, Section 16-17-420, anyone who unnecessarily — and there is no question that political rallies are unnecessary since they could take place after school or on the weekends when they won’t disrupt academic studies — interferes or disturbs schools from carrying out a normal day is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Similarly, in Florida, Title XLVI, Chapter 871.01(1) states, “Whoever willfully interrupts or disturbs any school or any assembly of people met for the worship of God or for any lawful purpose commits a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.”
EDUC § 37.124(a) in Texas states, “A person other than a primary or secondary grade student enrolled in the school commits an offense if the person, on school property or on public property within 500 feet of school property, alone or in concert with others, intentionally disrupts the conduct of classes or other school activities.” It further provides that “Disrupting the conduct of classes or other school activities” includes in (c)(1)(B) “enticing or attempting to entice a student away from a class or other school activity that the student is required to attend…”
Well, these school walkout events are being planned openly and flagrantly in violation of state and local laws by this national group, Indivisible. They are absolutely trying to entice students to leave classes they are otherwise required to attend. There is no question.
In some cases across the country the events are being sanctioned by the local school district. When similar walkouts were planned on March 14, the Fairfax County, Va. superintendent Scott Brabrand sent a letter to parents stating, “principals at the middle, high, and secondary schools have been directed to work with students to find peaceful and safe opportunities to facilitate the observance…”
This, despite Virginia law under Title 18.2, Chapter 9, § 18.2-415 that defines disorderly conduct as any person acting “with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he… Willfully… disrupts the operation of any school or any activity conducted or sponsored by any school, if the disruption … prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of the operation or activity…”
Local districts can cancel school activities for emergencies such as inclement weather or for events that are otherwise sanctioned by law, like elections. But not for political rallies.
There is no First Amendment obligation to allow for school walkouts. If states or individual school districts were to adopt policies that allow for them, which they could do, the risk is that they could be staged every day. Because, if similar walk outs were not allowed for other issues, say, a pro-life walkout or a pro-Second Amendment walkout, it would violate viewpoint neutrality as required under the First Amendment.
Not that they should. Discussion of national issues is allowed at schools in a classroom setting where students can state their views, in social studies, government and civics classes. There is no need to allow every interest group the right to disrupt a school day for their specific favored issue.
But the fact is, South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Virginia — and states across the country — have already set public policy by making it a crime to disrupt a normal school day that brokers no political rally exception.
Proponents of the walkouts like to cite the 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said students have a First Amendment right to wear black arm bands to school, stating that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…” Part of the rationale is that the arm bands were not disruptive.
This is beyond arm bands. This is about disrupting school activities repeatedly for electoral politics by allowing students to leave class for the second time in as many weeks.
States have a compelling state interest in placing these types of time and place restrictions on speech and assemblies as it relates to the school day, and local officials who are essentially canceling school activities for a specific interest group appear to be doing so in violation of the statute — and when they won’t allow it for other issues, in violation of the First Amendment.
At the end of the day, states should not be lightly allowing these school shutdowns in the name of speech, otherwise they will have to cater to every interest group. Students can and should be leading discussions in the classroom under a teacher’s direction, time permitting. Walkouts should not be sanctioned at all.
Those organizing the walkouts across state lines, if they are violating state laws by disrupting public schools, can and should be subject to prosecution. The walkouts serve no educational purpose, they serve a political purpose — and State Attorneys General nationwide do not have to put up with it.
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Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.