High court turns away Ark. district's appeal of armbands ruling

By The Associated Press
03.05.09

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand lower court rulings that found an Arkansas school district violated the First Amendment when it barred students from wearing black armbands to protest the district’s dress-code policy.

On March 2, the high court turned away an appeal by the Watson Chapel School District of a September 2008 ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The appeals court had affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes that the school system violated the students' free-speech rights when it punished them for protesting the dress code.

The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the appeal leaves the lower court rulings in place.

"This was a predictable outcome, as it has been clear from the outset that suspending students simply for expressing their opinion is a violation of their constitutional rights," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas. The group represented the students who filed suit over their school suspensions.

On Oct. 6, 2006, 31 junior high and high school students in the Watson Chapel district wore black armbands to protest a policy requiring them to wear khaki pants with belt loops and a white polo-style shirt with two or three buttons. Students also were required to wear identification badges.

At least 24 of the students were punished with suspensions, although some of them had notes from parents saying they had the parents' permission and that the protest was allowed under the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist.

Three of the students, with their parents, filed suit. Before trial, Holmes ruled that the district had violated the students' rights and held a trial only on the issue of damages. A jury found that the students did not prove they deserved either compensatory or punitive damages. Afterward, Holmes granted a motion by the students to amend the jury verdict to award nominal damages, and each was awarded $1.

Holmes also ordered the school district to pay the students' attorneys fees.

The suit initially named members of the Watson Chapel School Board as defendants, along with Superintendent Danny Knight and Watson Chapel Junior High School Principal Henry Webb. But Holmes dismissed the board members as defendants, leaving only Knight and Webb.

Knight retired as superintendent last year, said Danny Hazelwood, the district's current superintendent. Hazelwood declined to comment on the high court's rejection of the district's appeal.

A message left at a telephone number listed for Webb was not returned in time for this story.

The case is Watson Chapel School District v. Lowry.