The New York American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has criticized the Central Islip School District's decision to suspend students who participated in a peaceful protest against proposed budget cuts.

In a letter to Superintendent Craig Carr on Tuesday, the NYCLU said the suspensions sent the message that free speech is unimportant and discouraged civic participation.

More than 100 seventh and eighth students from Ralph J. Reed Middle School received one-day suspensions after walking out of their classes and marching to the district offices. They joined hundreds of students and teachers from across New York state who protested against Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget plan, which includes $1.2 billion in cuts to education spending.

"The students’ walkout was a powerful demonstration of political speech," Director of the NYCLU's Suffolk County Chapter Amol Sinha said. "As an important exercise of students’ First Amendment rights, it was a vivid and entirely valid civics lesson. These students should be praised for their idealism, not punished by being suspended from school."

Rather than punishing students for participating in the protest, the school should have used the event to encourage intelligent discourse and civic engagement among its students, the group said.

"Instead, the school chose to punish, forgoing an opportunity to teach students about the responsible exercise of their constitutional rights."