Student View

Know Your Rights

Want to safely join a protest? Worried about what to do if you get pulled over in your car? Knowing what your legal protections are—and aren’t—can be tricky. Here’s how to assert your rights while staying on the right side of the law.*

When you’re under 18, it can feel like all the adults around you— parents, teachers, coaches, even random strangers at Starbucks—are constantly telling you what you can and can’t do. When you add in that you can’t vote and you may not be old enough to drive, it’s easy to feel like you have no rights at all. But the truth is you have more rights than you may realize. In fact, you have the same constitutional rights as adults, which, when you think about it, is pretty awesome. Even more awesome: Your rights don’t only protect you—they can also help you stand up for others and fight against injustices in the world. You can do amazing things once you understand what your legal protections are (and you can avoid a lot of trouble if you know what they aren’t).

But before you start quoting the Constitution to any grump who tells you to get off his sidewalk, you should remember that laws can change over time and vary by state. Always check the law if you find yourself in a tricky situation (your local American Civil Liberties Union chapter is a good place to start) and talk to your parent or guardian about what to do. Also, keep in mind that just because you legally can do something, that doesn’t mean you always should. The unfair truth is that sometimes, asserting your rights could actually put you in danger. So when using the advice from this article, always assess the situation and do everything you can to stay respectful, polite, and safe. Read on to learn what your rights actually are in some common daily dilemmas.

Q: I’m editor of my school paper, and I just got a hot tip that our cafeteria served tainted meat that made a bunch of students sick. So gross! My readers have a right to know about this, right?

 

You’re legally entitled to speak your mind!

A: You’re right— that is gross, but you should still be careful about publishing a story about it. If you’re at a public school and your paper is a “public forum for student expression” —meaning students decide what gets published—then you’re pretty well protected. But, important reminder, you still need to do your reporting—make sure your story is true, and back up your allegations with documented facts and legitimate sources. (See “I Fought School Censorship and Won.”) And if your newspaper is run by the school administration, or if you go to a private school, it’s more likely that you can be censored. If you’re not sure about a specific article you want to publish, contact an organization like the Student Press Law Center (https://splc.org/legalrequest/) for free legal help.

Q: There’s a march this weekend I’d love to attend, but I’ve seen videos of people getting arrested at protests, and I don’t want that to happen to me. Is it legal for me to attend the march?

A: Short answer: Yes! The First Amendment gives Americans the right to assemble “peaceably.” You can join marches in public places and carry signs and speak (or sing, or shout) your beliefs— even if they’re controversial. But you can’t destroy things, protest on someone’s property without their permission, hurt other people, block traffic, or block entrances to government buildings. You should also be prepared to encounter counter-protesters (who can legally be there too) or law enforcement. Clashes between police and protesters usually occur when the police think the protesters are interfering with their ability to do their jobs. If an officer orders you to do something, like to keep moving, and you disobey, you could be arrested. Keep your phone charged so that you can call a trusted adult for help. And we urge you to talk to your parent or guardian in advance about participating in the march, especially if you think there’s a chance of violence or getting arrested.

Q: Soccer is my life, but now my coach says everyone on the team has to take a drug test. I don’t do drugs, but I also don’t want to pee in a cup. Isn’t drug testing an invasion of my privacy?

 

Talk to your coach if you’re uncomfortable with a drug test.

A: You’re not the first person to feel this way! In fact, in 1995 and 2002, teenagers James Acton and Lindsay Earls brought cases to the Supreme Court on this same issue, arguing that their schools’ drug testing policies were too intrusive. But the Court ruled that you can be required to take a drug test at school if you’re a member of a sports team or other extracurricular activity. So the short answer is, if you’re on the soccer team, it’s legal for your coach to ask for the test. But the fact that something is legal doesn’t mean it has to happen. There’s no law against stating your discomfort with the test or suggesting an alternative, like signing a pledge vowing to stay drug-free.

Q: My friend and I were just goofing off in front of a café when a stranger started screaming that we were making too much noise. Was it legal for me to film his meltdown?

Sierra Gilmer, 17

A: Go ahead and press record. If you’re in a public place like a sidewalk (laws differ for private property), it’s OK to film whatever you can see. (Some states have laws against recording audio unless everyone who’s being recorded has agreed.) For example, 17-year-old Sierra Gilmer was at a Black Lives Matter protest when a woman started shouting racist and homophobic slurs at Sierra and her friend. She filmed the woman, the video went viral, and the woman wound up losing her job. That said, your safety should be a priority: Sierra says the woman didn’t seem to care that Sierra was recording her, but there’s always a chance someone will get violent if you film them. And while your phone’s camera can be a powerful tool for shutting down offensive behavior, that doesn’t mean you have to post what you film: Ask yourself if the good of posting the video outweighs the damage of publicly embarrassing the person. Finally, an important reminder: The law is different for private property—if you were inside the café, for example, you’d be on private property, and the owner could ask you to stop filming and leave the café.

Q: I’m totally psyched to have my driver’s license— at last!—but I’m super nervous about getting pulled over. What do I need to know?

A: Getting pulled over is a fact of (driving) life, but it’s a great idea to be prepared. If it happens, try to stay calm. Pull over to the right side of the road, turn your car off, and lower your window. Have your license, registration, and proof of insurance ready for the officer (keep your registration and insurance info in the glove compartment). If you can’t have these documents out by the time the officer gets to your window, don’t reach for them without asking permission, says Melanie Bates, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and consultant—otherwise, the police might think you’re getting something else, like a weapon. Everyone in the car should keep their hands in full view. If you’re driving, keep your hands on the wheel, and tell the officer before moving them—say, “I’m reaching for my license now,” to avoid any misunderstandings. You can tell the officer your name, but you can also (politely) exercise your right to remain silent (see “3 Rights- Protecting Phrases”).

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