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NEW ORLEANS — A student who was prohibited from wearing a T-shirt supporting John Edwards' presidential campaign at school asked a federal appeals court this week to bar a Texas school district from enforcing its dress code.
On July 8, a three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal that Paul "Pete" Palmer and his parents filed in their lawsuit against the Waxahachie Independent School District. A decision is expected within the next few months.
Palmer claims the suburban Dallas school district censored his constitutionally protected political speech when it prohibited him from wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "John Edwards '08" to Waxahachie High School in September 2007, when he was a sophomore.
The district says its dress code, which prohibits all "non-school messages" on clothing, is designed to promote school pride and foster a learning environment free of distractions. In court papers, the district's lawyers argue the dress code passes constitutional muster because the policy is "viewpoint and content neutral."
Sara Leon, a lawyer for the district, says the dress code doesn't prohibit other forms of political expression, such as wearing a campaign button or putting a campaign sticker on a book bag.
"The school board in this case has not found that to be a problem and has chosen not to regulate it," Leon said.
Judge Leslie Southwick questioned whether the school district's rationale for barring students from wearing clothes with political messages is "undermined" by allowing students to wear political buttons.
"There is no evidence that Pete's campaign shirt or any political speech was causing disruption," said Allyson Ho, an attorney for Palmer and his parents.
Leon, however, said faculty members were spending less time on disciplinary matters since the code was instituted.
"Administrators were tied up making dress code decisions on a daily basis" before the code, she said.
Palmer is appealing a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn, who refused to issue a court order allowing him to wear shirts with political messages.
"In punishing Pete for expressing support for a presidential candidate," his lawyers wrote, "the school district not only violated the First Amendment, but also struck at the heart of what the First Amendment was designed to protect — core political speech."
The district contended Palmer, who will be a senior this year, was disciplined for wearing a "San Diego" T-shirt and not for the message on the T-shirt promoting Edwards' campaign. Palmer's parents brought the campaign shirt to school after their son was told he couldn't wear the other T-shirt.
"Pete was never punished for the message on that (Edwards) shirt," district lawyers wrote. "He was simply asked to comply with a dress code that prohibits all non-school messages on clothing, regardless of the message conveyed."