SPLC urges federal appeals court to protect Nevada students’ right to protest school dress codes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) is urging a federal appeals court to protect students’ First Amendment rights to non-disruptively wear clothing that expresses disagreement with school uniform codes.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the SPLC argued that a student who wishes to protest a school uniform rule should not face disciplinary action unless his protest crosses the line of “material and substantial disruption” of school activities. That is the threshold established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

The case, Frudden v. Pilling, was brought by a Reno, Nev., couple in 2011 after the couple’s elementary-school children were threatened with disciplinary action for wearing clothing noncompliant with a school uniform code. The family opposes the uniform – which carries the school logo and the slogan, “Tomorrow’s Leaders” – as a symbol of conformity.

On Jan. 31, a U.S. District Court threw out the family’s case, although it was agreed that the students’ decision to wear noncompliant clothing (a soccer uniform, and an inside-out school uniform shirt with the slogan concealed) caused no disturbance. The judge ruled that Tinker did not apply to the students’ protest, and that a school could enforce a uniform code regardless of whether the students’ method of expressing dissent was disruptive.

In its brief, SPLC argued that the district court’s ruling is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which establishes that a student has a First Amendment right to decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance as a means of expressing disagreement with a mandatory-pledging rule. The SPLC pointed out that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2008 case, Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District, that wearing black armbands to protest a school dress code was constitutionally protected speech that could not be punished, even though the armbands themselves violated the dress code.

“Virtually the last remaining vehicle where a student today may confidently express his views during the school day without fear of reprisal is the ‘forum’ the student wears on his own body,” the SPLC said in the brief, noting that post-Tinker court rulings have eroded Tinker’s broad constitutional safeguards. “In this case, the School District seeks to deprive students of those final few uncensored inches. If the ruling below is allowed to stand, then the area within the school where Tinker applies will be essentially an empty set.”

The brief was prepared and filed with the assistance of SPLC volunteer attorney Louis M. Bubala III of Armstrong Teasdale LLC in Reno. Mr. Bubala, a former college and professional journalist, is an experienced commercial litigation attorney who is recognized as an authority in bankruptcy law.

“Courts continue to retrench on students’ ability to meaningfully participate in the discussion of political issues relevant to their lives, and it is essential that the Ninth Circuit reaffirm that schools cannot punish students for using peaceful, civil methods of making their opinions heard,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC. “These students chose a very measured and restrained way of voicing their objection to a policy that was, at that moment, a subject of ongoing political dispute before the local school board. Students should be commended, not punished, for taking an interest in policymaking and attempting to engage public support toward changing school rules with which they disagree.”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has served as the nation’s only nonprofit legal assistance service dedicated to the needs of student journalists and the educators who work with them. More information about the work of the Student Press Law Center is available on its website at www.splc.org.


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