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Tennessee public high school adopts 'business-like' dress code

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

Administrators at Franklin High School in Franklin, Tenn., say their recent decision to amend the school's dress code will create a more business-like atmosphere by eliminating student clothing that draws "an inordinate amount of attention" to an individual.

But a civil libertarian and an expert on dress codes question whether the administrators have gone too far with the policy.

A group of teachers, parents and administrators -- called the "Building Leadership Team" -- adopted the changes last month after getting approval from the Student Council.

Principal Doug Crosier told The Tennessean: "We're going to have the strictest dress code of any county high school."

The code provides that "in order to maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning and to prepare students for working environments, Franklin High School requires that all students exercise good taste with regard to their personal appearance. Attire considered disruptive or risky to health or safety is not appropriate."

The dress code bans much clothing, including:

  • "any clothing, appearance or personal hygiene and grooming practices that draw an inordinate amount of attention to the individual";
  • hats, caps, stocking caps, hoods, scarves, bandannas or other head-coverings within the school building;
  • "hair sprayed or dyed in unnatural colors (such as blue, pink, red, green, yellow), spiked hair, mohawks";
  • "extreme facial makeup";
  • body-piercing jewelry except for the ears; and
  • T-shirts bearing references to alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, drugs, drug-related slogans or shirts that "in any way can be interpreted as being suggestive, obscene, or offensive."

Crosier said that he and other school officials pushed for the changes after noticing a "correlation between students' dress and behavior."

"I noticed last spring that students would have to go home from school and change clothes before going to work," Crosier said. "That is fine if a student is working at Dillard's or Castner Knott (department stores). But if a student working in a service job has to change his school clothes before going to work, something is wrong. We are simply moving to a more business-like environment."

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union, says the policy will infringe on students' free-expression rights.

"The courts recognize that school officials do have the right to ensure that the educational environment is free from disruption and have given the courts broad leeway to ensure such an environment," she said.

"However, the ACLU has long believed that students should have the right to express themselves freely, including by their choice of dress," she said. "This particular dress code is quite broad and subjective. It is always difficult to create objective criteria for a dress code. That is one reason why I support an opt-out provision for a student and his or her parent."

Weinberg also said that any dress code should recognize that students do not lose their right to political discourse.

In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials violated the First Amendment rights of students who wore black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The court ruled that student expression is constitutionally protected unless it creates a substantial or material interference with the educational environment.

Many scholars, lawyers, school officials and other interested observers argue over whether Tinker only protects political statements or other forms of student expression.

Todd DeMitchell, an education professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written about dress codes, said: "The Tinker case has been taken too far. In the case itself, the Supreme Court distinguished between protected free-speech rights of individuals who make statements as opposed to those who wear a certain type of clothing just to wear it."

"Any constitutional rights students may have with respect to clothing is minimal to nonexistent. The courts have repeatedly recognized that schools are a special place," DeMitchell said.

"If the wearing of school apparel is not considered constitutionally protected, then the courts will look at the prohibitions under a reasonableness standard," he said.

"Even if there are no First Amendment concerns with the Franklin High School policy, there are definite reasonableness concerns. I think a court would have a difficult time with a dress code policy like this which attempts to enforce good taste."

DeMitchell, a former high school principal and superintendent, questions whether school officials should invest a lot of time and resources into enforcing dress codes. "If there is no problem, why spend so much time and resources in enacting a dress code?" he asks. Any time a school adopts one of these dress codes, it will take up a lot of time and energy because there is also a backlash."

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