Cuomo: Punishing peaceful demonstrations unconstitutional

Cuomo: Punishing peaceful demonstrations unconstitutional

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. File photo by Erika Karp

As students and districts deal with the aftermath of a nationwide student walkout March 14, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has made it clear where he stands on punishments for those who participated.

“Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech,” Cuomo said in part in an open letter to New York State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in an open letter March 15. “Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional. Reports that schools may also discipline faculty are also highly concerning and would send a terrible message to our students.”

Students from several North Shore schools — including Ward Melville High School, Rocky Point High School and Northport High School — participated in the national walkout inspired by the political activism stemming from a Feb. 14 shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people. Many of the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida spearheaded what became a national movement. Students in other districts — like Port Jefferson High School and Harborfields High School — participated in school-approved indoor memorials and remembrances which also included outlets for students to express their views on gun control legislation. Many school districts issued warnings prior to March 14 that participating students would face disciplinary action. Elia was publicly supportive of the walkouts prior to March 14.

Michelle Salz, the mother of a Rocky Point Middle School student, said she will be joining with a group of parents who have come together to fight the suspensions legally.

“I am infuriated that the school is not allowing my straight A honors student, who is the president of her student council and the president of the national junior honor society, to exercise her First Amendment right to free speech,” she said. “It is disgraceful that our school district is choosing to penalize our activist students instead of embracing this event as a teaching opportunity.”

Cuomo’s letter its entirety:

Dear Commissioner Elia,

Yesterday, I proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with brave students and faculty who spoke out against gun violence. History provides moments where real change is possible, and the thousands of students who participated in organized walk-outs all throughout the state are seizing the moment and admirably standing up for the safety of their classmates and students across the country.

In the last 24 hours, there have been several reports of New York State schools disciplining students and faculty for participating in yesterday’s historic events to stop gun violence. In at least one disturbing incident, it was reported that the school physically blocked the exits to prevent students from demonstrating.

These actions send a terrible message to New York’s children and are against constitutional free speech protections. I call on you to use SED’s authority to stop these schools, reverse course and cease any disciplinary actions.

Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech. Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional. Reports that schools may also discipline faculty are also highly concerning and would send a terrible message to our students.

The students who participated in the walk-out are trying to advance laws and actions that would save their lives, and many viewed their participation as necessary to their own safety. The scourge of mass shootings in schools is very real, and these students were taking proactive steps to protect themselves and their classmates. These actions, coupled with the peaceful manner in which the demonstrations were conducted, is something that should be lauded, not punished.

Additionally, I call on you to thoroughly investigate any reports of schools that blocked the exits to physically prevent students from leaving during the event. This an egregious safety violation and it is also unlawful.

Yesterday’s actions were a testament to the courage and leadership of New York’s students. As I said yesterday, these young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington. To punish or discipline them is inconsistent with the freedom of expression that we cherish. It would say more about the adults imposing discipline than it would about the students who exercised their rights to speak out.

Sincerely,

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Desirée Keegan contributed reporting