Gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen speaks at an event in Omaha. Image credit: Right Cheer on Flickr.

Like spring perennials, the ads and the yard signs are back. Campaign season has been in full swing thanks to May’s primary and candidates are now looking to November’s general election.

As a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse or oppose candidates, much of our electoral work focuses on general voter education and voting rights defense. But this year, an urgent request added a last minute addition into that work plan: a western Nebraska school district, Potter-Dix Schools, was planning an event that raised community concerns.

Emails from district employees show they were planning to “take all students that are here that day over to listen to [Nebraska gubernatorial candidate] Pillen” and ask questions about “the future of agriculture and civic responsibilities.” Prepared student questions ranged from gun rights to “mitigating Biden’s 30 by 30 plan.”

The event, which was canceled after we reached out, could have violated the U.S. Constitution and state law.

Here’s why.

The First Amendment bars public schools from compelling staff and students to pledge support for a political candidate or to adopt any particular political view. That’s why school districts should be cautious about taking any actions that could be interpreted as displaying political partisanship or pushing it on staff and students.

The event could have also violated Nebraska’s Political Accountability and Disclosure Act, which prevents use of public resources for the purpose of campaigning for the election of a candidate. Similarly, Nebraska Department of Education regulations restrict political activity by school staff during school hours. 

Although an email from Superintendent Adam Patrick said Pillen would not be delivering his “‘vote for me speech,’” questions provided to event organizers certainly wouldn’t have been out of place at a campaign event. For example, students were ready to ask about Pillen’s positions on property tax relief and the State Board of Education’s draft health education standards.

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly affirmed students’ rights, unconstitutional activities and legally suspect events remain concerningly common in our public schools. The bottom line is that teachers and administrators have a responsibility to respect their students’ rights and that includes providing a learning environment that is free of compelled partisan activities.

We will always be ready to defend those rights.

We encourage students, as well as their parents and guardians, to know your rights and to speak up when those rights are violated.

Think your rights have been violated? Get started on our Get Help page.

Your First Amendment Rights at School

More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Photo of an empy school hallway
  • You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school — as long as you don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate school policies that don’t hinge on the message expressed.
  • What counts as “disruptive” will vary by context, but a school disagreeing with your position or thinking your speech is controversial or in “bad taste” is not enough to qualify. Courts have upheld students’ rights to wear things like an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion, and a shirt supporting the LGBTQ community.
  • Schools can have rules that have nothing to do with the message expressed, like dress codes. So, for example, a school can prohibit you from wearing hats — because that rule is not based on what the hats say — but it can’t prohibit you from wearing only pink pussycat hats or pro-NRA hats.
  • Outside of school, you enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else. This means you’re likely to be most protected if you organize, protest, and advocate for your views off campus and outside of school hours.
  • You have the right to speak your mind on social media, and your school cannot punish you for content you post off campus and outside of school hours that does not relate to school.