5th Circuit backs Texas school in T-shirt dispute

By The Associated Press

DALLAS — A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a Texas school district dress code that banned a student's T-shirt supporting John Edwards' presidential campaign.

Officials at the Waxahachie Independent School District prohibited Paul "Pete" Palmer from wearing the shirt to school in September 2007, when he was a sophomore. Palmer and his parents sued, alleging that the suburban Dallas school and district officials infringed on his constitutionally protected free-speech rights.

Last year, a federal judge in Dallas denied Palmer a court order that would have allowed him to wear shirts displaying political messages, including one emblazoned with "John Edwards for President '08," to Waxahachie High School.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in a 15-page opinion in Palmer v. Waxahachie filed yesterday.

The panel found that the dress code was "content neutral" and intended to avert distractions from education. The judges ruled that civil rights weren't violated because students are free to wear what they want after school and may don buttons containing messages during school.

"It looks like the court has agreed with our legal position on all points and we're very pleased," said Bill Bednar, an attorney for the school district. "We feel that the law was quite well-settled and the 5th Circuit opinion merely confirms what had already been made clear."

Palmer's father, Paul D. Palmer, said the court's refusal to grant them an injunction against the school district wasn't unexpected. "The 5th Circuit has a reputation for being very conservative," said the elder Palmer, a lawyer.

He said the family wanted to consult with their attorneys before determining their next step, but he stressed that "we're not going away. They haven't worn us down."

Palmer says his son, now a senior, will probably graduate before the case is resolved.

"This ruling is an attempt to change four decades of law protecting students' rights to free speech," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute, which represents the Palmers. "It is completely wrong. We will appeal and go as far as necessary to make sure the First Amendment is not damaged in this way."

The district has said 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 argued the dress code passes constitutional muster because the policy is "viewpoint and content neutral."

Sara Leon, a lawyer for the district, has noted that 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.

"That's absolutely stupid," Palmer said of the button and book bag distinction. "What's the important educational objective that they're pursuing with that policy?"

Pete initially went to school wearing a "San Diego" T-shirt, which was not allowed. His parents brought the Edwards campaign shirt to school after their son was told he couldn't wear the other T-shirt. Later, Pete submitted three shirts for district approval. All three were rejected, including one with "Freedom of Speech" on the front and the First Amendment printed on the back.

"If this new approach (the 5th U.S. Circuit's ruling) stands, not only would students be stripped of their most basic freedom, but the whole country would suffer loss," said Shackelford, Palmer's attorney. "Training future citizens to speak only what the government wants them to say is a recipe for disaster."