Schools should balance safety with free-speech rights

Wednesday, September 15, 1999

Imagine an ordinance prohibiting adults from entering a municipal arena wearing sandals.

Or consider a statute that would bar anyone wearing a T-shirt from entering the city hall.

Clearly, either piece of legislation would be soundly rejected by the public. After all, this is a nation founded on freedom, and government bureaucrats have no right to tell us how to dress in public buildings.

Given that, it’s remarkable how many school boards across this country are participating in a wave of restrictive dress codes, apparently inspired by the tragic shootings in Littleton, Colo.

Dozens of public schools have enacted new restrictions on what children can wear to public schools. In some cases, the Littleton backlash is clear. Why else would a public school suddenly ban black trenchcoats?

In other cases, public schools are imposing requirements that students wear uniforms, a policy that some administrators say is designed to prevent the wearing of gang colors and to discourage teen violence.

Public school dress codes are not inherently unconstitutional. State courts have applied a variety of standards, and First Amendment violations have essentially been found only in cases in which specific speech — armbands, slogans or buttons — have been prohibited.

Still, implementing something that is not blatantly unconstitutional is not necessarily a good idea. Some factors to consider:

  • Clothing is a form a free expression. All of us make choices about what we wear based on our own perceptions of who we are.
  • Students don’t have to wait until high school graduation to enjoy the benefits of the First Amendment. We’re born with constitutional rights.
  • Although many courts have not found constitutional protection for specific clothing, judges generally do require that dress codes actually enhance safety or prevent significant disruption. In other words, the restrictions on clothing must have a rational basis.
  • Just as adults would resent being told what they can wear in government facilities, so do teens. If public education seeks to teach personal responsibility, overly restrictive dress codes undermine that goal.

There are also growing concerns among adults that rigidly enforced dress codes and mandatory uniforms undermine basic parental responsibilities. For example, a group of Wilson County, Tenn., parents have united to fight against a newly implemented dress code. Their Web site opens with a graphic that says, “Help us! Our American rights are going to be wiped out.”

Of course, those American rights also include freedom of religion. Last month, administrators at Harrison Central High School in Mississippi told a Jewish student he could not wear the Star of David because it violated a dress code prohibition against “gang symbols.” When the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit, the school board belatedly recognized the difference between a religious symbol and a gang symbol and amended its policy.

The most troubling aspect to the flurry of dress codes is that they often show so little respect for the students themselves, particularly those attending high school. These are young adults. More to the point, these are young citizens. They have a right to have their views reflected as school boards develop dress code policies.

When a school board bans black trenchcoats, it is sending a troubling message. It is, in essence, saying: “We’re so frightened by the fact that two young men committed an unspeakably violent act in the state of Colorado, that we are ready to short-circuit the students’ free expression rights, regardless of whether the specific ban would have any beneficial effect on public safety.”

We can only wonder what school boards would have done if the Littleton killers had worn suits and ties. Would we be seeing a nationwide ban on Brooks Brothers?

Safety in public schools should be a major concern. But it should not be our only concern. We need to balance an environment of safety with a respect for freedom.