Michigan teen drops lawsuit over dress code policy

Friday, January 22, 1999

Eric VanHoven, the Michigan teen suspended from Zeeland High School last March for wearing T-shirts with the band names Korn and Tool, has settled his First Amendment lawsuit against the school district.

At a status hearing earlier this week, VanHoven agreed to dismiss his lawsuit in exchange for immediate reinstatement into a vocational training program associated with the school. VanHoven's dress code suspension is to be expunged from his record.

VanHoven was suspended for wearing T-shirts bearing the names of the rock bands. Although the shirts bore no other message, school officials took action against VanHoven after an administrator read lyrics by the bands on the Internet.

School officials claimed that the wearing of the shirts violated a provision in the dress code policy which prohibits “any clothing or items that imply obscenity, violence, drugs, alcohol, or sexual innuendo.”

VanHoven sued the school in federal court last October, claiming that the policy — and particularly the implied-speech provisions of the code — infringed on students' First Amendment rights.

However, at the Jan. 20 hearing, VanHoven agreed to drop his lawsuit in exchange for being able to attend Careerline Tech Center, a vocational training facility that serves 13 school districts including Zeeland.

Kary Love, VanHoven's attorney, said the decision to settle was partly based on VanHoven's decision last October to drop out of school. VanHoven felt he would be subject to scorn as a result of the dress code controversy.

Zeeland school board communications specialist Jim Camenga said that school officials in no way forced VanHoven to leave school.

“With all due respect to the First Amendment, this case has been resolved well for Eric,” Love said. “He has paid his dues in protecting the First Amendment.”

“The whole thing I wanted was to get back in school,” VanHoven said.

Under the settlement, the school district pays no money to VanHoven for damages or for legal fees incurred during the litigation.

Suzanne Bartos, attorney for the school district, acknowledged that VanHoven had voluntarily dismissed his lawsuit, adding that he had done so “with prejudice,” meaning that he cannot refile the lawsuit at a later date.

Bartos added that VanHoven did not receive special treatment with regard to the expunging of his dress code suspension. “School district policy is to expunge suspensions from a prior year, so that suspension would have been expunged anyway,” she said.

Bartos reiterated that the school district will keep its current dress code policy in place. “The school district has not changed its policy nor does it plan to change the policy as a result of this lawsuit,” she said.

In a prepared statement, Superintendent Gary L. Feenstra said: “We're pleased to see this case resolved for two reasons. Number one, we're glad the student has chosen to return to school second semester. Secondly, our dress code policy was not changed as result of the settlement.”

Bartos maintains that the school dress code is constitutional. “I believe that the school district has the authority and the right to regulate children in the classroom during school hours — and that includes dress codes,” she said. “In my opinion, there are no First Amendment problems with this dress code whatsoever.”

However, Michael Steinberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, says the dress code policy is unconstitutional.

“This policy violates the First Amendment because it discriminates against certain bands based on the alleged content of their lyrics,” he said. “There is nothing illegal about the shirts themselves; they only contain the names of bands.”

The dispute over the dress code policy may not be over, however. Love says that two other students may file a lawsuit challenging the policy.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.