Blog: Students lose with high court’s denial

Monday, January 11, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court missed a golden opportunity to provide much-needed guidance on the state of student expression when it denied review today in Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent Community School District.

The case out of Texas involved a challenge to a school dress-code policy that prohibited nearly all message T-shirts, even those with political messages. The student in the case, Paul “Pete” Palmer, had argued for the right to wear several message T-shirts, including a John Edwards for President shirt.

Lower courts, including a federal district court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had ruled in favor of the school district because the dress code was supposedly content-neutral (though students could wear shirts with official school messages). These courts said the seminal student free-speech case in U.S. law — Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. (1969) — did not apply.

In Tinker, the Supreme Court ruled that students don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate and public schools couldn’t prohibit them from wearing black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The Court ruled that school officials couldn’t restrict student speech unless they could reasonably forecast that the speech would create a substantial disruption.

Palmer’s T-shirts — like the black armbands in Tinker — were pure political speech. They also — like the Tinker armbands — were not disruptive. However, the school district in Tinker had singled out black armbands because of the viewpoint associated with them. According to the courts in the Palmer case, the school merely had instituted a dress code irrespective of political viewpoints.

Under this reasoning, school districts can avoid Tinker by claiming that their regulation doesn’t restrict student speech on a content or viewpoint basis. If school districts adopt this approach across the country, then more students will lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate.

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