Appellate court rules school district violated First Amendment rights of students who wore black armbands to school

School district plans to appeal to Supreme Court

ARKANSAS -- The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision saying students who protested their school district's uniform policy in 2006 had a right to do so under the First Amendment.

Students Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan, Michael Joseph and their parents prevailed in a complaint against the Watson Chapel School District in a U.S. District Court decision in 2007. The students claimed the school district, its superintendent, the principal of Watson Chapel Junior High and the district's school board members "violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by punishing plaintiffs for wearing black armbands as a symbol of protest."

The district court ruled that disciplining the students for their silent protest violated the First Amendment because it was uncontested that the protest caused no material disruption or substantial interference with school activities.

That ruling, which was affirmed by the 8th Circuit on Sept. 2, is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court according to Ivy Lincoln, an assistant superintendent and compliance and civil rights coordinator with the school district.

"(The students) weren't punished for wearing the armbands, but for the message," Lincoln said. "We are fighting to determine whether or not it's permissible to regulate the time, place, and manner of a student protest of a school rule using apparel."

This case, Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District, is similar to a landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, where three students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Tinker established the right to free expression in school as long as it does not cause a "material or substantial disruption" or invade the rights of others in that school.

The cases are so similar, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas used Tinker to prove the students were correct in their protest of the uniforms.

"Tinker has been black-letter law for almost 40 years," said Holly Dickson, ACLU staff attorney. "(The court's decision) did not surprise me at all."

Dickson represents the students in their case and said she was not surprised by the school district's plan to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

"They are so deeply offended that students dared to question their actions," she said, "they'll stop at nothing in order to not hear commentary."

But Lincoln disagrees with the way Tinker is being interpreted by the ACLU compared to this case.

"Tinker is not on point," he said. "Black armbands are a logical trap. Look at the differences."

Lincoln said there was a difference in Tinker since the students in that case were protesting a national event -- the Vietnam War. In

Lowry the students were protesting a local event -- a dress code policy.

"If a second-grader wants to protest the War in Iraq tomorrow, then that kid won't get in trouble here," he said.

Wendy Crow, Lowry's mother, said she was disappointed with Lincoln's statement that the district plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

"I just think it's a shame because the money they are going to waste -- because they are going to be told they are wrong again -- could be used on some of the kids in their district that need help," Crow said.

Crow said she learned of Tinker while attending school in the same district. She said the past superintendent's wife taught the case to her in civics class. Charles Knight retired as superintendent since the original lawsuit was filed, but remains a defendant in the lawsuit. Crow said she was reminded of Tinker when she and her son searched for a "peaceful protest" on the Internet after a the district school board rejected parents' complaints about the dress code policy.

Dickson said she felt the three students who sued the district are "extremely courageous and brave."

"These three students in particular were motivated by a desire to stick up for people who were not in a position to stick up for themselves," she said. "They have great families and they faced extreme pressure from the community to not sue the district."

Lowry said the experience of the case helped him understand what he would like to do as a career.

"It makes me want to do a lot more activism," he said. "I like standing up for myself and I like to fight the power."

The case is precedent for the 8th Circuit, which covers the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. If accepted by the Supreme Court, the outcome of the case could become law for the entire country.

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