Court: School wrong to punish students who wore black armbands to protest dress code

ARKANSAS — A school district that punished students who wore black armbands to protest the district’s uniform policy violated the students’ First Amendment rights, a federal judge ruled, but a jury awarded no damages to the students.

Judge Leon Holmes ruled that although the Watson Chapel School District’s dress code policy was legal, punishing students for protesting it was not. The judge then instructed the jury to decide the amount of damages, which the instructions said “must” be at least $1.

The jury, however, awarded nothing to students Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan and Micheal Joseph.

District officials did not dispute that the students were punished because their armbands were part of a protest against the dress code and also admitted the armbands did not disrupt the school, the court noted in its Sept. 13 judgment.

The court still must rule on a permanent injunction that would bar the district from punishing students who wear similar protest armbands in the future. The court had already issued a preliminary injunction in October 2006 allowing students to wear the armbands while the case was argued.

The students have until Oct. 12 to file their brief on the remaining issues, said Rebekah Kennedy, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing the students.

Both sides claimed the decision as a victory.

“We are very pleased,” said Michael Dennis, the district’s attorney. “The jury issued a decision in favor of the school district.”

The ACLU, on the other hand, points to Holmes’ ruling that the school did violate the rights of the students.

The case dates back to October 2006, when students and parents passed out more than 200 black armbands for students to wear around their wrists or arms to show their disagreement with the district’s dress code. The protest stemmed from complaints that the policy passed the previous spring was too restrictive, even stipulating exact numbers for buttons on shirts, belt holes and pants pockets. The policy did allow students to wear personal jewelry and similar items as long as those items did not overlap the uniform.

According to court records, about 20 students from the junior and senior high schools were suspended for participating in the protest. Most students did not wear the armbands or removed them after they heard about the suspensions.

The lawsuit against the school district also included a complaint from Lowry involving a separate incident in which he was suspended for passing out a flier opposing the dress code without prior approval from the principal, a requirement for passing out literature at Watson Chapel Junior High School.

The court ruled Aug. 22 that the school’s literature policy was probably unconstitutional since it provided no guidelines as to what material the school could reject.

Holmes left it to the jury to decide whether the content of the flier alone motivated the principal to suspend Lowry, or if the principal acted in good faith trying to follow a policy — requiring prior approval of student literature — that he didn’t realize was unconstitutional. The jury ruled it was the latter.

Kennedy said the students will ask the judge to require the school district to change its literature policy.

“The school still refuses to admit they’ve done anything wrong,” Kennedy said.

When Holmes makes his final judgment, he will address the jury’s decision not to award damages despite his instructions, Kennedy said.

The student black armband protest mirrors the famous student free-speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of students who were punished for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Tinker became a precedent for school free-speech cases by establishing that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and that schools can restrict student expression only if it materially disrupts the school environment or invades the rights of others.”

For More Information:

Lowry v. Watson Chapel Sch. Dist., No. 5:06CV00262 (E.D. Ark. Sept. 14, 2007).

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