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The Equal Access Act and Roadblocks to Organizing


RoadblockSo, you want to start a Secular Student Alliance (SSA) group at your school, but your request is denied. Perhaps you’re denied access to the announcements, a meeting room, or you’re told you can’t hang flyers around your school? Thankfully, there’s a federal law, the Equal Access Act, which protects and guarantees your rights to organize. The Equal Access Act requires that any federally-funded school with a limited open forum (explained below) must follow certain guidelines in regards to the formation and business of extracurricular clubs.

Since the act was signed into law in 1984, it has been formative in protecting the rights of minorities seeking to organize in federally-funded schools. Although it was originally lobbied for and supported by evangelical Christian organizations, the act has ensured that groups like Gay-Straight Alliances and Secular Student Alliance affiliates have received equal treatment and resources that other, more accepted clubs, receive.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released a letter to school adminstrators that included a condensed set of guidelines on how to apply the Act to extracurricular clubs.

Any group is under the protection of the Equal Access Act if:

  • The school has a limited open forum. A school has a limited open forum if it has at least one extracurricular student-run group meeting outside of normal school hours.

  • The school is receiving federal funding.

Most likely, your school  meets these requirements. This means that your group is guaranteed the protections outlined in the Act. These include equal access to school resources like rooms for meetings, announcements, advertisement space, etc.

The act also covers requirements for the groups under its protection. Namely, groups must be:

  • Student-led and initiated.

  • Voluntary.

  • Non-disruptive to the school environment.

The formation of a Secular Student Alliance affiliate at your school meets all of these criteria. Since you approached the SSA to request a group starting packet, instead of, for example, a parent or teacher, your group is student-led and initiated. Your membership is voluntary and attendance at your meetings is not mandatory. Also, your goals are not to disrupt the education of your fellow classmates, but actually to enhance and diversify it.

The act also contains some rules for how school administrators must treat extracurricular groups.  The act gives administrators the right to:

  • Monitor and attend meetings.

  • Limit meeting time/space.

  • Produce a set of rules that groups must follow.

  • Prohibit members of the community from attending meetings.

However, administrators cannot apply these rules arbitrarily. For instance, the administration cannot limit the meeting time or space of a Secular Student Alliance group, but allow the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Muslim Student Organization to meet whenever they choose. If a rule is made, it must be equally enforced on all groups or not enforced at all. This means that any rules specifically limiting the formation of a secular student club are most often illegal.

Happy Secular StudentsNow that you know more about the Act, its requirements, and its protections, we’ll look at  two examples of problems we hear most often at the Secular Student Alliance and discuss how the Equal Access Act applies to each situation to help protect your right to organize.

First, say you’re starting your group and your principal calls you into their office. They say that the club can’t form because it’s too controversial or that the community won’t allow it. What can you do?

First, remember the requirements for the Equal Access Act’s protections. Is your school federally funded?  (If you attend a public school, the answer is yes!)  Does it have at least one extracurricular group meeting outside of normal school hours? If you answered yes to these questions, the Act and its protections apply to you and your group. Use them or lose them!

In this situation, the Act states that your group cannot be denied solely on the basis of its perceived ability to generate controversy or the distaste of the community towards your speech and views. The Act was specifically created with the intention of protecting the speech and assembly of minority students. So, this is the exact situation the Act was created to protect against. If your administrators block your group for this or any similar reason, let us know immediately.

A second thing we often hear about at the Secular Student Alliance involves roadblocks, or “hoops” that your group must jump through. Roadblocks can be anything from administrators dragging their feet to approve your group to the creation of extra rules or steps to becoming an official club. Often, these measures are meant to dissuade students from starting groups that are seen as controversial.

However, your group is protected against these added steps and roadblocks by the Act. If your school meets the Act’s requirements (see above if you forget what they are) then your school must treat all clubs equally in terms of rules and requirements. For example, your school and the administration cannot require you to fill out extensive paperwork and collect 50 names to start your group if the Bible study group only had to collect 10 names and complete no paperwork.  Also, while it can be hard to prove that your administration is stalling, it too is not allowed. If other groups are being (or have been) approved in a timely manner, then yours should be as well. If you notice any type of stalling, rule changes, or other roadblocks being put in your way, contact our high school specialist immediately.

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