If I wear my hair long or dye it an unusual color, can I get in trouble at school?

Monday, May 2, 2005

Courts are much divided on this issue. Among the federal appeals courts, the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th and 8th circuits have seemed receptive to students’ claims of free-expression rights concerning their hair. But the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th circuits have seemed unreceptive.

Many cases involving student hair today deal not with length but color. For example, a high school student from Virginia sued his school district in federal court after school officials suspended him for having blue hair. A federal judge reinstated the student, finding a violation of his constitutional rights.

Generally, courts that have found a constitutional issue have ruled along similar lines, claiming that a student’s choice of hair color and style represents either a First Amendment free-expression issue or a 14th Amendment liberty or equal-protection interest. Some courts have even pointed out that regulating students’ hair has a more permanent effect than regulating their dress because outside school they can change their clothes more readily than their hairstyles or color.

Conversely, the courts that have sided with school districts have generally ruled that students’ wearing of long hair “does not rise to the dignity of a protectable constitutional issue.”

Either way, different courts have simply come to different legal conclusions. As a result, students’ rights in this regard largely depend on where they live.