Below is an open letter from the ACLU of Georgia to Educators and Students and a quick guide to students’ constitutional rights with regard to Free Speech.
February 28, 2018
An Open Letter to Georgia Educators and Students:
As a child of the civil rights movement, I watched the adults around me – including my parents – plan, attend, and lead demonstrations that they knew would be opposed by local authorities. Many of these demonstrations included teenage high school students. Those high school students courageously demonstrated in order to achieve a change for their own lives when the conventional avenues for policy change had failed.
Students were critically important participants in the Birmingham protests that resulted in the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law ended segregated public accommodations and protects us to this day from discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. It is a direct result of students who took responsibility to create social change.
Dr. Benjamin Mays, former President of Morehouse College and the first African American to head the Atlanta Board of Education, spoke of the goal of educational institutions: to produce “… honest men [and women]… who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting the ills.”
I, myself, have learned that taking responsibility can sometimes mean being seen as radical in the eyes of others. Today’s educators – many of whom are the beneficiaries of those earlier student protests – must be mindful of their responsibility as educators. They should ask themselves: what lessons do we want our students to learn from our example in this moment?
Georgia educators may exemplify, in the spirit of civic responsibility, Georgia’s heritage of human rights that inspires people around the globe. Our state is the birthplace of two men who won the Nobel Prize for their work in promoting peace and human rights-Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr. As Georgians, we are proud of our rich history in the struggle to create a more perfect union.
The high school students in Birmingham were not oblivious to the possible risks of their actions. They studied, practiced, and made a commitment to non-violence. Many went to jail for their actions. The legal landscape for the exercise of free speech has changed significantly since 1963, but there remain limitations. The rights of students to free speech and freedom of expression under the First Amendment to the Constitution are attached to this letter.
As we continue the fight to live out the true meaning of our Constitution, we should never forget the critical role that young people have always played as leaders in that fight. We must also remember the responsibilities that those of us who are beneficiaries of past battles now have in teaching our young leaders.
Graduate of Atlanta Public Schools