Know Your Rights: Students

Getting an education isn't just about books and grades - students are also learning what to expect outside of the classroom. 

In order to really prepare for life outside the halls of our schools, everyone should know their rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government cannot deprive people of certain fundamental rights including the right to freedom of religion, free speech, and the due process of law. Many federal and state laws guarantee additional rights, too. 

Let this page serve as a reminder that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone, including students.

Information by way of the ACLU Nationwide Department of Public Education.

1. What does "Freedom of Expression" mean?

A.What does "Freedom of Expression" mean?


The First Amendment guarantees the right to free expression and free association, which means that the government does not have the right to forbid students from saying what they like and writing what they like. Students have the right to form clubs and organizations and take part in demonstrations and rallies. 

2. Do I have the right to express my opinions and beliefs in school?

A.Do I have the right to express my opinions and beliefs in school?


Yes. In 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District the Supreme Court held that students in public schools - which are run by the government - do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse doors. This means that students can express their opinions orally and in writing such as a leaflet, or on buttons, armbands or t-shirts. 

Students have a constitutional right to express their opinions as long as they do so in a way that doesn't "materially and substantially" disrupt classes or other school activities. If students hold a protest on the school steps and block the entrance to the building, school officials may be able to stop them.

Keep in mind: School officials may not censor only one side of a controversy. If they permit an article in the official school paper that says that premarital sex is bad, they may not censor an article that says premarital sex is appropriate. 

3. What are we allowed to say in the school paper?

A.What are we allowed to say in the school paper?


Keep in mind: Private schools have more leeway to set their own rules on free expression than public schools do.

It depends on whether the school is paying for producing the paper. If it is a completely student-run paper that students want to hand out in school, the school may not censor what they say or stop students from handing it out as long as the paper is not "indecent" and the student(s) do not "materially and substantially" disrupt school activities. (The school may place reasonable limits on the "time, place or manner" of handing it out.) The same rule applies to leaflets or buttons that may have created and paid for.

In the official school paper, however, students may have a problem publishing an article that discusses important but controversial issues like sex education, condom distribution, or drug abuse. That's because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It said public school administrators can censor student speech in official school publications or activities -- like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook -- if the officials think students are saying something "inappropriate" or "harmful" even if it is not vulgar and does not disrupt. 

Some states -- including Colorado, California, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- have "High School Free Expression" laws that give students more free speech rights than the Constitution requires. 

Can we slam really bad teachers in the school paper? 

In a student's own publication, it's their right to criticize how the people who run their school do their jobs. But they cannot print something about a teacher that is knowingly false or something that makes the teacher/faculty look bad. That could be considered libel.

4. Is my school allowed to have a dress code?

A.Is my school allowed to have a dress code?


Public schools can have dress codes, but under federal law dress codes can’t treat students differently based on their gender, force students to conform to sex stereotypes, or censor particular viewpoints. 

Schools can’t create a dress code based on the stereotype that only girls can wear some types of clothes and only boys can wear other types of clothes. For example, your school can require that skirts must be a certain length, but it cannot require that some students wear skirts and prohibit others from doing so based on the students’ sex or gender expression. That also applies to pants, ties, or any other clothing associated with traditional gender roles. 

Dress codes also must be enforced equally. For example, rules against “revealing” clothing, such as bans on tank tops or leggings, shouldn’t be enforced only or disproportionately against girls. 

All students should be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression, whether they identify as transgender or cisgender. This also applies to homecoming, prom, graduation, and other special school events. Schools shouldn’t require different types of clothing for special events based on students’ sex or gender identity — for example, requiring tuxedos for boys and prom dresses for girls. 

If you think your school's dress codes and hair codes are unfair and you are wondering what you can do, email with the details of your situation. 

5. Do I have to say the pledge of allegiance?

A.Do I have to say the pledge of allegiance?


No. The Supreme Court has held that it is just as much a violation of First Amendment rights for the government to make a student say something they don't want to say as it is for the government to prevent them from saying what they do want to say.

Simply put: Every student has a right to remain silently seated during the pledge.

6. Can the school library refuse to stock certain books?

A.Can the school library refuse to stock certain books?


This is a very complicated issue. Schools certainly have the right to pick the books they think have the greatest value for their students and to reject those that they believe have little value. On the other hand, if the school refuses to stock a book for "narrowly partisan or political," reasons - i.e., they just don't agree with the authors' viewpoints - that's censorship and censorship is unconstitutional. In a 1982 case called Island Trees v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards can't remove books from a school library just because they don't agree with their content. But in many communities around the country, school administrators and librarians are under heavy pressure from religious and other groups to censor what we read and study.

If you believe that your school is censoring books because of their viewpoints, you, your teachers and the school librarian can challenge book censorship at your school or in court. The freedom to read is the freedom to think - and that's totally worth fighting for!

Email with the details of your situation if you would like to learn more about what your options are. 

7. Can my school discipline me for participating in a walkout?

A.Can my school discipline me for participating in a walkout?

  • Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class. But schools cannot discipline you more harshly because of the message or the political nature of your action. 
  • The punishment you could face will vary by your state, school district, and school. If you’re planning to miss a class or two, look up the policy for unexcused absences for your school and school district. If you’re considering missing several days, read about truancy. Also take a look at the policy for suspensions. 
  • If you are facing a suspension of 10 days or more, you have a right to a formal process and can be represented by a lawyer. Some states and school districts require a formal process for fewer days. 
  • You should be given the same right to make up work just as any other student who missed classes. 

8. What if I am confronted by the police at my school?

A.What if I am confronted by the police at my school?

  • If you’re stopped by a police officer at your school, stay calm. Don’t argue, resist, run away, or otherwise interfere with the officer. Ask if you’re free to leave. If the answer is yes, calmly and silently walk away from the officer. 
  • If the officer asks you a question, you have the right to remain silent. You also have the right to refuse to write or sign a statement. But if you waive these rights, anything you say, write, or sign can be used against you. And if you choose to make a statement, ask to have a lawyer, parent, or guardian present before you are questioned. 
  • You can refuse to give your consent to be searched by the police. This may not stop the search, but this is the best way to protect your rights if you end up in court. 
  • Don’t consent to a phone search; police need a warrant to search your phone. The same goes for a strip-search. No police officer or school employee has the authority to strip-search you. 
  • Don’t resist, fight, or flee from an officer who is arresting you. Say you wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Don’t say anything, sign anything, or make any decisions without a lawyer present. 

9. The rights of immigrant students

A.The rights of immigrant students

  • Schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin. 
  • Undocumented children cannot be denied their right to a free public education, and schools should not require families to prove their immigration status in order to enroll their children in school. 
  • Students with limited English proficiency cannot be turned away by public schools, which must provide them with language instruction. 

10. LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit Students' Rights

A.LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit Students' Rights

  • LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit students have a right to be who they are and express themselves in public schools. 
  • Public schools should not “out” students to their families. 
  • Public schools have a responsibility to create a safe learning environment. They cannot ignore harassment based on a student’s appearance or behavior. Students should report harassment or threats to a principal or counselor. This puts the school on notice that officials can be held legally responsible for not protecting students. 
  • Public schools cannot force students to wear clothing inconsistent with their gender identity. 
  • If a public school permits any noncurricular clubs — clubs that aren’t directly related to classes taught in the school — then it must allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance or other LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit-themed clubs, and the school can’t treat it differently from other noncurricular clubs. 
  • Students’ transgender status and gender assigned at birth are confidential information protected by federal privacy law. If your school reveals that information to anyone without your permission, it could be violating federal law. If you don’t want school officials revealing your private information to others, including your legal name, tell them very clearly that you want your information kept private and that they should not disclose that information to anyone without your consent. 
  • Some states and cities explicitly protect the right of transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Additionally, several courts have ruled that excluding transgender boys and girls from using the same restrooms as other boys and girls violates federal education law.  This is an area of the law that is changing a great deal right now. We recommend that you contact the ACLU if you have any questions about your rights at school. 

11. The Rights of Pregnant Students

A.The Rights of Pregnant Students

  • Public schools and all schools that get federal funds are prohibited from excluding pregnant or parenting students from school, classes, or extracurricular activities, or pressuring them to drop out or change schools. 
  • These schools must provide pregnant students the same accommodations that students with other temporary medical conditions are given, including the ability to make up missed classwork, attend doctor’s appointments, take time off for childbirth and recovery, and learn in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. 
  • These schools are not allowed to punish a student who chooses to terminate a pregnancy or reveal a student’s private medical information. 

12. Additional Resources