Lawsuit challenges school's punishment of student who wore Edwards T-shirt

TEXAS — A Waxahachie High School sophomore filed alawsuit Tuesday against the school district over a September 2007 incident inwhich he was sent home from school for wearing a John Edwards 2008 T-shirt.

Hiram Sasser, a Liberty Legal Institute attorney for Pete Palmer, said thecomplaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas,seeks to prohibit the Waxahachie Independent School District from enforcing”this unlawful policy.” It also asks for nominal damages of $1 andan injunction allowing Palmer to wear his shirt as the trial proceeds.

The district dress code policy states that, “T-shirts, other thanWISD clubs, organizations, sports, or spirit T-shirts, college or universityT-shirts, or solid-colored T-shirts are prohibited.”

“So if you want to support your football team you can, but if youwant to support your Lord and Savior and your choice for presidential candidate,you can’t do that,” Sasser said, adding that many gangs useuniversity sports logos as their insignia.

According to the complaint, Palmer wore black jeans, a black jacket and ablack T-shirt to school on Sept. 21, 2007, but was asked by Assistant PrincipalBrenda Johnson to change his clothing because his all “black gothicattire” was prohibited by the dress code.

His father, Paul Palmer, brought him the Edwards T-shirt to change into,knowing that it was prohibited. Johnson told Pete his shirt “promoted apolitical candidate” and was therefore unacceptable. Pete was told hecould have an in-school suspension, leave school for the day or change intoacceptable clothing. He chose to put on an acceptable shirt and return toschool. Pete and his father, also an attorney, unsuccessfully appealed to theadministration and school board before filing their lawsuit.

Nicole Mansell, public relations director for the district, said schoolofficials cannot comment because of student privacy. But a press release postedby the school district Monday stated that the dress code prohibits clothing thatcontains writing of any kind, except for school or education-related clothing.

“Our district has found that a student dress code requiring solidcolored T-shirts and collared shirts enhances discipline and reducesdistractions to the learning environment,” the press release states.

In May 2007 the WISD School Board approved dress code changes forsecondary-school students to provide a safer learning environment, decreasestudent dress code infractions and encourage responsible dress, according to thepress release. The statement also pointed out that students can wear buttons andsymbols, form clubs and speak at limited public forum opportunities.

“Our schools, however, are not unbounded forums for practicingstudent speech,” the press release stated.

The complaint quotes the 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District, which said students do not”shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression atthe schoolhouse gate.

In Tinker, the court ruled that school officials may not punish orprohibit students’ speech unless they can clearly demonstrate that it willresult in a material disruption of normal school activities or invade the rightsof others.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said indress code cases, courts have typically drawn a line between students who have aparticularized message to express that other students will understand, and thosestudents who simply don’t want to follow the dress code.

“If a student isn’t trying to express something specific, thedress code wins,” Goldstein said. “If the student has a message,then Tinker controls, and we look at whether the expression is legal andnon-disruptive.”