North Dakota school board adopts student dress code

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

The school board in Bismarck, N. D., adopted a dress code policy Monday that prohibits T-shirts that promote alcohol, cigarettes or drugs or that are “obscene, lewd, vulgar or sexually suggestive.”

The school board contends the dress code will ensure a better learning environment and will more nearly reflect the values the board wishes to instill in students.

Dr. Lowell Jensen, superintendent of schools in Bismarck, said: “Our policy does three things: it prevents the wearing of items that could be damaging to safety, like spikes and chains; it prevents the wearing of T-shirts or anything for that matter that promotes the use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco; and it prevents the wearing of clothing that is sexually obscene or lewd.

“We just felt this policy was in the best interests of our young people,” he said.

The policy provides that “although personal grooming and dress are primarily matters of concern between the students and their parents, it becomes a concern of the school when grooming and dress patterns create a disruptive influence upon the educational program of the school, endanger the health and safety of the student body or result in the destruction of school property.”

School board attorney Gary Thune believes the dress code is constitutional. In a letter to the school board, Thune writes that the school policy is “consistent with statutes governing the use of controlled substances, alcohol and tobacco by minors.”

Thune concludes: “School boards have authority to limit student speech which advertises or promotes alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs or any other product or service harmful to minors and not permitted to minors by law. Likewise, dress code provisions against 'obscene, profane, lewd or vulgar' apparel are enforceable, without the necessity of establishing the immediate prospect of disruption.”

However, the American Civil Liberties Union contends the policy violates students' First Amendment free-expression rights. Keith Elston, executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas, disagrees with Thune, saying: “We absolutely think there is a First Amendment problem; the policy is very vague, overbroad, content-based and viewpoint discriminatory.”

Elston said that he has no problem with the prohibition of items that might present safety issues, such as chains or spikes. However, he reiterates that the policy as drafted is unconstitutional, stating “it is not the school's business to regulate the content of student clothing to this extent.”

Elston says it's very likely the policy will be challenged in court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.