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Students can wear logos protesting school dress code, says federal judge

By David Hudson

Public school students in Wilson County, Tenn., have a First Amendment right to wear messages criticizing the school dress code, a federal judge has ruled.

Last October, Cory Vinson, a student at Mount Juliet High School, and his sister, Kista Vinson, an eighth-grader at Mount Juliet Junior High, wore shirts criticizing the school board's adoption of a strict dress code policy.

The shirts bore the messages: "The Board voted and all I got was this lousy uniform" and "I miss my real clothes."

School officials suspended the students for wearing the shirts. The students then sued in federal court, contending that the school board had violated their First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge John Nixon ruled on Sept. 6 in Vinson v. Wilson County School Board that the school could not punish the students for wearing protest logos.

Nixon reasoned that "public schools can regulate or suppress speech and expressive activity of students" when the student speech is vulgar, school-sponsored or disruptive of the educational environment.

The students contended that their protest should be given the same protection as the U.S. Supreme Court granted to several Iowa public school students in its 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. In Tinker, the high court ruled that school officials violated the First Amendment rights of several students when they suspended them for wearing black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

"As an initial matter, the Court finds that the wearing of the protest logos in this case embodies exactly the kind of speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection," Nixon wrote.

Nixon also determined that the student's wearing of the logos "had the purpose of conveying a particularized message, namely, opposition to the Board's dress code policy."

School board officials argued that the dress code policy was content-neutral and prohibited all logos. However, Nixon noted that school officials allowed students to wear school mascot logos and Tennessee Titans logos.

"The Board prohibited the students' speech in a content-discriminatory manner, but there is no evidence nor even allegation that the protest logos caused any disruption in the classroom or at school," Nixon wrote.

He concluded that "the Board is in violation of the plaintiffs' First Amendment right."

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said that a decision was made to challenge only the restriction on the logos rather than the dress code itself because most dress codes have been upheld under current law.

Nixon's issuance of a preliminary injunction is a "wonderful ruling," she said. "However, the decision is also a wonderful lesson for all Wilson County students because they have learned that they do not lose First Amendment rights to protest when they enter the schoolyard.

"These students took the lessons they learned in class and turned them into practice, she said. "It is important to realize as well that these students protested in a nondisruptive manner."

Tennessee school board, students near settlement in lawsuit over dress code
Agreement will allow Wilson County students to wear protest logos on shirts. 05.15.01


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

Panel upholds ruling that found Arkansas school district violated First Amendment rights of students disciplined for protesting uniform policy. 09.03.08

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