Arkansas school district asks Supreme Court to hear black armband case

ARKANSAS -- The Watson Chapel School District has filed a petition to have the United States Supreme Court decide the legality of punishing students for wearing protest armbands.

In September, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. district court's decision in favor of Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan, Michael Joseph and their parents in Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District, saying the school district violated the students' First Amendment rights by suspending them for wearing black armbands to protest the school district's dress code policy.

In the petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, the school district asks the Court to decide whether the 8th Circuit improperly applied Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate." Tinker said that students who wore armbands to protest the Vietnam War were allowed to express themselves freely unless their actions caused a "material and substantial disruption" of normal school operations or an invasion of rights of other students.

Watson Chapel School District said in the petition for certiorari that the "misapplication of Tinker can have far reaching effects."

"The prioritization of emphasis by the school district on one activity versus another is just the type of discretionary function of local schools that courts should not interfere with," the writ stated. "As this Court has noted, the determination of what manner of speech in the classroom or in the school assembly is appropriate and properly rests with the school rather than the federal courts."

Holly Dickson, American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas staff attorney, has represented the students in their case. She said she took objection with the petition claim that the Supreme Court must intervene to resolve a "split among the Eighth, Fifth and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning the application of Tinker to school dress codes."

Ivy Lincoln, assistant superintendent of finance and compliance and civil rights coordinator for the school district, said the district had no comment accept to say the school district is "pursuing our appeal rights in the words of the petition."

The Watson Chapel School District contends in the petition that the Supreme Court rulings in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Morse v. Frederick give schools broad authority to discipline the students for wearing armbands.

Hazelwood, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruled that high school administrators can censor school-sponsored publications by showing they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so. In Morse, commonly known as "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that a student's speech while at a school-sponsored event could be censored if it was reasonably interpreted as encouraging drug abuse.

Dickson, who received the writ of certiorari this afternoon, said she never wanted the case to go to any court.

"What I wanted was for them to honor these students' rights to free speech," Dickson said. "If we have to go to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to get them to honor these students' right to free speech, then so be it."

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