Federal appeals court rules Va. school’s dress code is too broad

VIRGINIA — A Virginia school district cannotenforce a dress code that prohibits students from wearing clothing that depictsweapons, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.In the decision, athree-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruledunanimously that the Albemarle County School Board could not enforce its dresscode while 13-year-old Alan Newsom challenges the policy in court. TheNational Rifle Association filed the lawsuit on behalf of Newsom against theAlbemarle County School Board, alleging that school administrators at JackJouett Middle School violated Newsom’s right to free speech and expressionwhen they ordered him to turn his T-shirt inside out. The T-shirt showed threeblack silhouettes of men holding guns and the words, ”NRA Sports ShootingCamp.”The court wrote that the district failed to show thatNewsom’s shirt or any other shirt worn by a student showing weaponscreated a disturbance. ”This lack of evidence strongly suggeststhat the ban on messages related to weapons was not necessary to maintain orderand discipline at Jouett,” Judge Clyde H. Hamilton wrote. Hamilton wrote that the school’s policy is too broad and will likelybe found unconstitutional. The case began in April 2002 when the viceprincipal at Jouett Middle School approached Newsom and told to him to changehis T-shirt or turn it inside out.According to court documents, the viceprincipal believed that the shirt had the potential to create disruption andfeared that other students would associate the images with the Columbine HighSchool shootings and other incidents of school violence.At the time, theschool’s dress code did not specifically prohibit clothing depictingweapons. However, the district has since amended the policy to ban suchclothing.Newsom filed the lawsuit in September 2002, alleging that theschool board and other school officials infringed upon his First Amendmentrights to freedom of speech and association. In the lawsuit, Newsom and hisfather are also seeking $100,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitivedamages. Daniel Zavadil, assistant general counsel for the NRA, saidthat clothing showing the Virginia state seal, the University of Virginia logoand the Albemarle County High School mascot could have been prohibited under theschool’s policy because they all depict weapons.”For [schoolofficials] to say advocating an interest in the Second Amendment of the U.S.Constitution is somehow vulgar is so absurd and un-American,” Zavadilsaid. The Second Amendment ensures Americans’ right to beararms.Zavadil said the Fourth Circuit’s decision follows theSupreme Court’s landmark decision in Tinker v. Des Moines CommunitySchool District. In that decision, the court ruled that public schoolstudents, ”do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech orexpression at the schoolhouse gate.”Zavadil said the decisioncould have a far-reaching impact for school districts across the nation asschools realize they cannot take zero-tolerance policies toofar.”Zero tolerance applies to the possession of weapons, not toadvocating a non-threatening, lawful interest in the right to keep and beararms,” he said.Zavadil said he is aware of one school district inVirginia that is already revising its policy in accordance with the FourthCircuit’s decision. Attorneys for Albemarle County and theAlbemarle County School Board did not return phone calls seekingcomment.

Newsom v. Albemarle County School Board, No. 03-1125 (4th Circuit, Dec. 1, 2003)