“If you don’t like what the government is doing, get out there and vote!” This is a common sentiment in the United States. Voting is an awesome tool that US citizens have to affect the political system directly, but what if you’re too young to vote?
The past few weeks, it’s become abundantly clear that high school students, many of whom are under the legal voting age, are ready to effect change on the US political system. This is fantastic, but it can get a little confusing. As a minor, what forms of political activism are accessible and possible for you to use to make an impact? Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do before you’re old enough to vote. So read on, and get ready to change the world!
Voting is not the only kind of political activism
When you hear someone encouraging you to exercise your civic duty, you probably think of voting. But in reality, our Founding Fathers outlined the Constitution so as to give us the right (or, depending on how you see it, responsibility) to participate in the political system in a myriad of ways.
“The main form of political participation is voting, but we go past that and have free speech, free assembly, freedom of petition,” says Cory Bergen, who has a JD from the law school at University of Maryland and now teaches AP Government at Dexter High School. “The First Amendment gives us the right to address our grievances to the government and say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing, and you’re representing us, so this is what we feel like you should be doing.’”
Proud of my middle schooler standing up and taking part in the #NationalSchoolWalkout today. #StudentsDemandAction for stronger gun laws. He may be too young to vote, but he is NOT too young to care (photo is from previous event) pic.twitter.com/stopgKMGrL
— Amy Traub (@AmyMTraub) March 14, 2018
Telling the government that you don’t like what it’s doing sounds pretty nice sometimes, doesn’t it? So how exactly does one go about doing that?
“We can lend our voices to our elected representatives, contacting them through letter, or email, or whatever platform. We can show up at city council meetings for local government. There are lots of ways to do that locally, which will affect you more day to day,” Bergen says. “You can work on campaigns. I encourage my students to get involved even though they’re too young to vote. You can still work on campaigns.”
But what if these nice little acts aren’t working? Bergen says, “People tend to gravitate towards more unconventional means of political participation, like protests, when they don’t feel like conventional means of contacting leaders is getting the desired result. Whether it be a rally, a walk-out, a sit-in, a lie-in, the goal is to try to grab attention. You want to make the system stop for a minute so we can take a look at what’s going on.”
Following the deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, you’ve probably heard that there’s not much we can do because the NRA donates so much money to politicians. To that, Bergen says, “These days, we know the effect that big money and special interest groups have on the political system. So we see a lot of more grassroots protests saying, ‘What about us?’ According to Citizens United, PACs and Super PACs have a First Amendment right to donate ‘big money’ to candidates to get them elected. If you don’t have the resources to do that, that’s how people use protests—to cut through all the noise and make people stop for a second and pay attention.”
What does this look like for high school students?
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School definitely have set an excellent example of how high school students can get involved politically. They have organized a campaign called Never Again MSD, a nationwide protest called March For Our Lives, and their petition, which calls for stricter background checks for gun buyers, has almost 150,000 signatures.
Bergen says, “When Emma Gonzalez says, ‘We’re gonna be the kids you read about in textbooks,’ I think she’s right about that.”
But what about on a smaller scale? Marin Waddington, a senior in high school who will be playing field hockey at Tufts University in the fall, has taken action using social media. On March 5th, she and her friend Joe Ramey wrote a letter to the student body encouraging them to participate in the nationwide walk-out for gun control on March 15th. They posted the letter on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to gain attention from their classmates.
— JO (@joe13ramey52) March 6, 2018
“Before the post, it was a little informal, talking to my friends about how we would lead the walk-out. We wanted to make sure it would happen at this school,” Marin says. “There’s actually a social justice leaders club at the high school. I’m not a huge part of it just because I don’t have time Thursday mornings, but I’m friends with a lot of the girls in that club. We got a group together to plan the walk-out, and then Joe and I decided to post our own statement to get it out to the people who aren’t really involved and hopefully get more people involved.”
Marin encourages high school students to use their social media platforms to enact change. “Don’t worry about being controversial and don’t worry about other people not liking you,” she says. “In order for change to happen, you have to be willing to speak out your opinion.”
Can I get in trouble?
When it comes to political activism, a lot of high school students are understandably hesitant because they don’t want to be penalized by their high school because that could affect their college admissions. Fortunately, your high school is legally only allowed to penalize you for certain types of political activism.
“The controlling case for this is Tinker V. Des Moines,” explains Bergen. In this case, a group of high school students wore black armbands to school to show their support for a truce in the Vietnam War. The principal of the high school tried to suspend students for wearing these armbands, and the case was eventually taken to the Supreme Court, who ruled that suspending students for wearing armbands violates their First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Students rising up to make change nationwide: We at the ACLU want you to know your rights, and use them. pic.twitter.com/pQVzcXDsny
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 13, 2018
“The Supreme Court said students don’t have to check their political rights at the door,” Bergen says. “But the students’ rights to freedom of expression have to be weighed against everyone else’s right to be educated. Does your political statement disrupt the school day? You have rights, but they can be outweighed if your protest rises to to disrupt the business of the school, which is to educate students.”
If you are interested in learning more about your right to protest as a high school student, the American Civil Liberties Union created a one-hour Q&A video about students’ rights. In it, they explain the extent to which your school legally can penalize you 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 what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action.”
If your protest takes place outside of school, then your rights are essentially the same as any other citizen, and your school should not be able to penalize you.
What should I do now?
If you still have a couple years left of high school, then chances are you’re going to start seeing a lot more political activism within the school than you did in the past few years.
“After the Parkland shooting and how we’ve experienced a lot of high schoolers leading this movement and standing out to talk about the cause, I think it’ll encourage a lot of young people to get involved too and to educate themselves,” Marin says. “Definitely if I had four more years of high school, I would continue to be more involved.”
So educate yourself and activate yourself as an engaged citizen: Learn about issues that interest you and don’t limit yourself to the opinions of those around you. Do your research, listen to different sides of the argument and make a change. Political activism and being politically active doesn’t start the first November that you’re 18. It can start right here, right now.