Phoenix public high school drops T-shirt logo ban

Tuesday, September 22, 1998

School officials at Central High School in Phoenix, decided late last week to suspend a newly enacted dress code that included a ban on nearly all T-shirt logos.

A subcommittee of the school site council — a group composed of school administrators, teachers, parents, community leaders and students — voted unanimously to return to the prior dress code policy. A school district spokesman said council members were concerned that the policy might violate First Amendment free-speech rights.

Last May the site committee voted to amend the dress code policy and the changes went into effect at the start of this school year.

Many students were upset with the new policy's rule that “T-shirts may only display a Central logo or a manufacturer's/designer's brand.”

Students signed a petition protesting the logo ban and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU enlisted the assistance of Phoenix attorney Gary Peter Klahr, who has handled several student dress code and uniform cases.

Klahr said that he contacted school officials and told them that the new policy violated students' First Amendment free-expression rights.

“The policy is unconstitutional for two reasons,” he said. “First, it prohibits a lot of political and social expression. Secondly, and even more fatally, this policy discriminates based on content.”

Rob Hawes, attorney for the school district, downplayed any controversy or criticism the policy caused. “The dress code discussion was really only in the preliminary stage,” he said. “It was never really implemented; it was only in the idea stage and was simply not a big controversy.”

When asked about student protesting of the dress code, Hawes responded that he “knew nothing about that.”

Jim Cummings, spokesman for Phoenix Union High School District, said that students did protest the dress code changes. “Many students signed a petition and others went to the principal's office and complained,” he said.

Cummings, however, disputed the allegation made by Klahr that students found in violation of the dress code were taken to the school cafeteria. “That would be incorrect,” he said.

“Allegations were made that the logo ban violated free-expression rights. Given some court decisions in this matter, that may well be true. However, once this matter was brought to our attention by the ACLU and Mr. Klahr, we examined the issue and changed our policy,” Cummings said. “We did not want to violate the spirit of the First Amendment.”

Cummings said the intent of school officials was never to stifle freedom of expression but only to remove distracting and disruptive expression from campus. The site council is to meet next week and will in all likelihood adopt the recommendation of the subcommittee, he said.

For now, Central High has reverted back to its prior policy that bans “sexually suggestive clothing, sleepwear, or clothing and/or buttons which show obscene words, pictures, sexually suggestive statements or alcohol/drug displays.”

Even though the controversy at Central High may well be coming to an end, Klahr said the issue was far from dead.

“The controversy about dress codes and uniforms does not only exist at Central High School, but exists at schools all across the country,” he said. “We are witnessing a war against the young.”

“Administrators are presenting uniforms as the easy solution to a hard problem,” Klahr said. “There is a real belief that more discipline needs to be imposed upon students.

“I agree that students should have responsibilities along with rights. However, this insidious movement towards restrictive dress codes and uniforms is taking us to a situation where students have responsibilities but have no rights.”