8th Circuit: Students can wear armbands to protest dress code

By The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A federal appeals panel yesterday upheld a ruling that Watson Chapel school officials violated the constitutional rights of three students who were disciplined for wearing black armbands to school to protest a uniform policy.

The school district had asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the U.S. District Court ruling last year that found the rights of the students had been violated.

On Oct. 6, 2006, 31 Watson Chapel junior high and high school students wore the 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, 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, U.S. District Judge Leon 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.

The school district also sought to overturn a permanent injunction that grew out of the case and the awarding of attorney fees for the students, Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan and Michael Joseph, and their parents.

"The district court was correct to find that ... a violation of (the students') First Amendment rights had been established," Judge Lavenski R. Smith wrote for the three-judge panel in Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District. “We hold that Tinker is so similar in all constitutionally relevant facts that its holding” is controlling.

The panel also refused to lift the nominal damages and to overturn the permanent injunction barring discipline of any students with armbands. The panel also left intact the order directing the school district to pay the students’ legal fees. In each case, the panel said the ruling from Holmes was correct.