PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Watson Chapel School District violated students’ right to free speech by suspending students who protested the school’s dress code, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday in U.S. District Court.
The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas on behalf of three students and their parents, asks that any disciplinary measures against the three be halted.
On Oct. 6, some students wore small black armbands to school, protesting a new, more restrictive dress code. About 20 students were suspended from school for a day over the protest.
“When government officials try to intimidate people from exercising their free speech rights, and punish them because they don’t like what they have to say, it’s a serious free speech violation,” said ACLU of Arkansas staff attorney Holly Dickson in a news release. “The students who had the courage to wear a simple armband are faced with failing grades and exclusion from school activities. Watson Chapel School District has had every chance to prevent this, but they have refused to correct their mistakes. These parents have no choice but to file a lawsuit to protect their children’s rights.”
The new dress code specifies shirt colors and the numbers of buttons and pockets. Students at the high school must wear khaki pants with belt loops and a white polo-style shirt with two or three buttons. Students also must wear identification badges.
The lawsuit said a double-standard exists when enforcing the dress code. The suit alleges one of the suspended students had previously worn a white armband saying “Live Pure, 1 Timothy 4:12” without any repercussions. Another wore two necklaces to school without any problems, the suit reads.
The suit claims each of the three students — Chris Lowry, 15; Colton Dougan, 14; and Micheal Joseph, 16 — suffered “pain, humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress” over the incident.
Ivy Lincoln, assistant superintendent of finance for the school district, said the district’s lawyer had received notice the lawsuit had been filed. Lincoln declined to comment further.