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Young people are speaking out. They have a voice and they want to be heard.

Next Wednesday, at 10 a.m., high-school students from across the country plan to walk out of school for 17 minutes to join the National School Walkout, a response to the Parkland, Florida school shooting. And there have been numerous other smaller, high school and middle-school student-led protests and rallies since.

Just days after the school shooting, students from the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School arrived at the state capitol in Tallahassee to lobby for a ban on assault-style rifles.

Just across the river in Clatskanie, about 200 people — including high school students — marched peacefully through town Monday, March 6 in support of longtime elementary school Principal Brad Thorud, who was not given a contract for the next school year.

At a time when older generations tend to dismiss or criticize America’s youth for being too absorbed by their cellphones, texting, social media and video games, for being too self-absorbed and disconnected from the “real world,” it was encouraging to seeing so many young people actively speaking out — and speaking up — for their beliefs.

Remember, for many of these students, the right to vote will come in just a few short months or years. Some are already 18 and able to vote. As you hear so often at high school graduations, these students are our country’s future leaders. Yes, some will go on to become doctors, CEOs, mechanics and skilled laborers. But others will go on to become federal and state lawmakers, mayors and city council members. They will nearly all be eligible to vote.

Every election season, Americans are bombarded with messages about the importance of voting. We’ve written here about the importance of voting, no matter your politics or party. Surely everyone has heard or read about the importance of everyday citizens getting involved in the community and local government?

According to the Pew Research Center, about half of eligible Millennials (those ages 18-35) voted in the 2016 election, compared to 63 percent of Generation X’ers (ages 36-51), 69 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 52-70) and 70 percent of those from the Silent/Greatest generation (ages 71 and up).

Given that more Millennials are expected to vote in the upcoming 2020 election than any other generation of voters, we welcome and encourage the interest young people are expressing.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that the right to free speech is a cornerstone of our society. It was so important to our founding fathers that just six months after the Constitution went into effect, the right to free speech was included in the Bill of Rights. In the 1969 Tinker v Des Moines case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

But school boards and school administrators can restrict, to a degree, the content (such as banning the use of profanity) and time and location (to prevent disrupting other students’ education) expression of free speech. There have been several cases where a school’s right to censor student newspapers has been upheld.

As these young people head out to protest, to march, to rally behind their causes, we hope they will remember the great responsibility that comes with their rights. And as our school officials set rules for what students can and cannot say or write, we hope they will remember that free-speech rights do not conveniently switch on only at age 18 or 21.

Whether you support or oppose what these students are saying, it’s in our best interest to pay attention to what they have to say.


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