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May public schools impose dress codes and uniforms?

Many students are able to express themselves through what they wear to school, but more and more teen-agers are facing restrictions as school boards across the country adopt more stringent policies.

Some states have passed laws empowering school boards to regulate student dress. For instance, Tennessee has a law allowing school boards to pass policies prohibiting the wearing of "gang related apparel." In 2001, Arkansas passed a law requiring school boards to create an "advisory committee" of parents and students to consider whether their local school district should require uniforms. Arizona has a law giving local school boards the power to adopt uniform policies. New Jersey passed a law saying that school boards may adopt a dress code or uniform policy if requested by the principal, staff and teachers and "if the board determines that the policy will enhance the school learning environment"

Many courts have upheld dress-code and uniform policies as a reasonable way to instill discipline and create a positive educational environment. Federal appeals courts have recently upheld uniform policies in Texas and Louisiana. The courts determined that the policies were not imposed to suppress students’ freedom of expression but to further reasonable educational objectives.

The Supreme Court has not decided a case involving a challenge to a dress-code or uniform policy.

May a school punish a student for wearing Confederate flag attire?

The courts are divided on this question, but most will examine whether the clothing would create a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities or invade the rights of others.

Practically, the issue boils down to whether the school has had prior incidences of racial violence or tension. If school officials can point to such incidents, a court will tend to side with them in Confederate flag attire cases.

However, the Supreme Court has also said that school officials could not censor student expression based on "undifferentiated fear or apprehension." This means that school officials have some burden to justify their actions.

Are political messages on students’ clothing protected?

Usually they are protected in dress-code cases as long as they are not conveyed in a vulgar or lewd fashion. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school students could wear black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam. The Court noted that the students were engaging in a form of symbolic speech that was “akin to pure speech.” In later decisions, courts have recognized that students have more protection when they engage in political expression.

However, the language used to convey a political message on dress can be very important. For example, in 1992 one federal court rejected a Virginia student’s First Amendment claim that she should not be punished for wearing a “Drugs Suck” T-shirt to class. Even though the message spoke to an important political topic, the court determined that the word “sucks” was too vulgar and could be prohibited.

The issue is a bit different with respect to school-uniform policies. If a public school adopts a uniform policy, they can prohibit T-shirts with any messages, including political messages. However, the school could not constitutionally prohibit students from wearing political buttons or logos on their school uniforms.

Can students wear clothing with profanity?

No, public school officials can prohibit students from wearing shirts with profane messages. In its 1986 decision Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote: “Surely, it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse.” The Court explained that “schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order.”

If I wear my hair long or dye it an unusual color, can I get in trouble at school?

Courts are much divided on this issue. Among the federal appeals courts, the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th and 8th circuits have seemed receptive to students’ claims of free-expression rights concerning their hair. But the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th circuits have seemed unreceptive.

Many cases involving student hair today deal not with length but color. For example, a high school student from Virginia sued his school district in federal court after school officials suspended him for having blue hair. A federal judge reinstated the student, finding a violation of his constitutional rights.

Generally, courts that have found a constitutional issue have ruled along similar lines, claiming that a student’s choice of hair color and style represents either a First Amendment free-expression issue or a 14th Amendment liberty or equal-protection interest. Some courts have even pointed out that regulating students’ hair has a more permanent effect than regulating their dress because outside school they can change their clothes more readily than their hairstyles or color.

Conversely, the courts that have sided with school districts have generally ruled that students’ wearing of long hair “does not rise to the dignity of a protectable constitutional issue.”

Either way, different courts have simply come to different legal conclusions. As a result, students’ rights in this regard largely depend on where they live.

Can different rules about hair length apply in extracurricular activities and the regular school day?

Yes. In most cases, participation in extracurricular activities is considered to be a privilege, not a right. As such, participants may be subject to additional or different rules than regular students. Lower courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have noted that participants in extracurricular sports, by electing to participate, subject themselves to these rules. In 1995, the Supreme Court decided a case in which it upheld drug testing for student athletes. In its opinion, the Court noted: “By choosing to ‘go out for the team,’ [student athletes] voluntarily subject themselves to a degree of regulation even higher than that imposed on students generally.” Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, U.S. 646, 657 (1995)

One fairly recent case highlighting this issue was decided in a U.S. District Court in Missouri. In Hurt v. Boonville R-1 School District Case, No. 02-4267-CV-C-SOW (W.D. Mo. 2002), a high school student was not allowed to play in a basketball game because he wore his hair in a type of braid called cornrows. This style violated the team coach’s grooming policy. Though calling the rule “stupid and dumb,” the judge deciding the case found no violation of constitutional or statutory rights and said that “high school coaches have discretion and authority to impose additional requirements on student athletes.”

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student expression issues >
Clothing, dress codes & uniforms
K-12 newspapers & yearbooks
Underground papers & off-campus speech
Book censorship
Hate speech & speech codes
Pledge of Allegiance in public schools
Speaking out in school