Lawsuit challenges school's punishment of student who wore Edwards T-shirt

TEXAS -- A Waxahachie High School sophomore filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the school district over a September 2007 incident in which he was sent home from school for wearing a John Edwards 2008 T-shirt.

Hiram Sasser, a Liberty Legal Institute attorney for Pete Palmer, said the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, seeks to prohibit the Waxahachie Independent School District from enforcing "this unlawful policy." It also asks for nominal damages of $1 and an injunction allowing Palmer to wear his shirt as the trial proceeds.

The district dress code policy states that, "T-shirts, other than WISD clubs, organizations, sports, or spirit T-shirts, college or university T-shirts, or solid-colored T-shirts are prohibited."

"So if you want to support your football team you can, but if you want to support your Lord and Savior and your choice for presidential candidate, you can't do that," Sasser said, adding that many gangs use university sports logos as their insignia.

According to the complaint, Palmer wore black jeans, a black jacket and a black T-shirt to school on Sept. 21, 2007, but was asked by Assistant Principal Brenda Johnson to change his clothing because his all "black gothic attire" was prohibited by the dress code.

His father, Paul Palmer, brought him the Edwards T-shirt to change into, knowing that it was prohibited. Johnson told Pete his shirt "promoted a political candidate" and was therefore unacceptable. Pete was told he could have an in-school suspension, leave school for the day or change into acceptable clothing. He chose to put on an acceptable shirt and return to school. Pete and his father, also an attorney, unsuccessfully appealed to the administration and school board before filing their lawsuit.

Nicole Mansell, public relations director for the district, said school officials cannot comment because of student privacy. But a press release posted by the school district Monday stated that the dress code prohibits clothing that contains writing of any kind, except for school or education-related clothing.

"Our district has found that a student dress code requiring solid colored T-shirts and collared shirts enhances discipline and reduces distractions to the learning environment," the press release states.

In May 2007 the WISD School Board approved dress code changes for secondary-school students to provide a safer learning environment, decrease student dress code infractions and encourage responsible dress, according to the press release. The statement also pointed out that students can wear buttons and symbols, form clubs and speak at limited public forum opportunities.

"Our schools, however, are not unbounded forums for practicing student speech," the press release stated.

The complaint quotes the 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

In Tinker, the court ruled that school officials may not punish or prohibit students' speech unless they can clearly demonstrate that it will result in a material disruption of normal school activities or invade the rights of others.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said in dress code cases, courts have typically drawn a line between students who have a particularized message to express that other students will understand, and those students who simply don't want to follow the dress code.

"If a student isn't trying to express something specific, the dress code wins," Goldstein said. "If the student has a message, then Tinker controls, and we look at whether the expression is legal and non-disruptive."

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More Information

Palmer v. Waxahachie Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 08-558 (N.D. Tex. filed Apr. 1, 2008).