PINE BLUFF, Ark. — A federal judge yesterday dismissed part of a lawsuit challenging Watson Chapel School District’s dress code.
The decision by Judge J. Leon Holmes in U.S. District Court in Pine Bluff found members of the school board had immunity from the portion of the lawsuit dealing with the district’s policy on distributing printed materials. One student was disciplined for distributing a flier criticizing the dress code, which specifies shirt colors and the numbers of buttons and pockets.
However, Holmes wrote in an opinion that Superintendent Charles Daniel Knight and junior high school Principal Henry Webb could be sued for their part in suspending about 20 students who protested the dress code by wearing black armbands.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, a reasonable person could find that the black armbands did not violate the school uniform policy, which permitted wristbands and jewelry,” Holmes wrote. “In other words, there is evidence that discipline was imposed to suppress a particular viewpoint.”
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 American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed the lawsuit in October after the students were suspended. The suit says the school district on Pine Bluff’s southwest side should be ordered to strike down its student dress code because it is petty, improperly applied and an affront to free speech. The suit also claims the dress code violates the right to due process and is unconstitutional as written and applied.
The ACLU later amended the lawsuit to add a complaint about the student disciplined over the flier.
Last October, Holmes issued a preliminary injunction barring the district from enforcing the dress code and ordering the district to clear the records of the suspended students.
In February, Holmes granted the ACLU’s request to postpone trial of the suit, previously scheduled for May 7. This week, both sides filed pre-trial documents.