Appellate court rules school district violated First Amendment rights of students who wore black armbands to school

ARKANSAS The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals uphelda lower court’s decision saying students who protested their school district’suniform policy in 2006 had a right to do so under the First Amendment.

Students Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan, Michael Joseph and their parentsprevailed in a complaint against the Watson Chapel School District in a U.S.District Court decision in 2007. The students claimed the school district, itssuperintendent, the principal of Watson Chapel Junior High and the district’sschool board members “violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments bypunishing plaintiffs for wearing black armbands as a symbol ofprotest.”

The district court ruled that disciplining the students for their silentprotest violated the First Amendment because it was uncontested that the protestcaused no material disruption or substantial interference with schoolactivities.

That ruling, which was affirmed by the 8th Circuit on Sept. 2, is expectedto be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court according to Ivy Lincoln, an assistantsuperintendent and compliance and civil rights coordinator with the schooldistrict.

“(The students) weren’t punished for wearing the armbands, butfor the message,” Lincoln said. “We are fighting to determinewhether or not it’s permissible to regulate the time, place, and manner ofa student protest of a school rule using apparel.”

This case, Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District, is similar to alandmark 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines IndependentCommunity School District, where three students wore black armbands toprotest the Vietnam War. Tinker established the right to free expressionin school as long as it does not cause a “material or substantialdisruption” or invade the rights of others in that school.

The cases are so similar, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansasused Tinker to prove the students were correct in their protest of theuniforms.

Tinker has been black-letter law for almost 40 years,”said Holly Dickson, ACLU staff attorney. “(The court’s decision) did notsurprise me at all.”

Dickson represents the students in their case and said she was notsurprised by the school district’s plan to appeal the decision to the SupremeCourt.

“They are so deeply offended that students dared to question theiractions,” she said, “they’ll stop at nothing in order to not hearcommentary.”

But Lincoln disagrees with the way Tinker is being interpreted bythe ACLU compared to this case.

Tinker is not on point,” he said. “Black armbandsare a logical trap. Look at the differences.”

Lincoln said there was a difference in Tinker since the students inthat case were protesting a national event — the Vietnam War. In

Lowry the students were protesting a local event — a dress codepolicy.

“If a second-grader wants to protest the War in Iraq tomorrow, thenthat kid won’t get in trouble here,” he said.

Wendy Crow, Lowry’s mother, said she was disappointed withLincoln’s statement that the district plans to appeal the decision to theSupreme Court.

“I just think it’s a shame because the money they are going to waste– because they are going to be told they are wrong again — could beused on some of the kids in their district that need help,” Crow said.

Crow said she learned of Tinker while attending school in the samedistrict. She said the past superintendent’s wife taught the case to herin civics class. Charles Knight retired as superintendent since the originallawsuit was filed, but remains a defendant in the lawsuit. Crow said she wasreminded of Tinker when she and her son searched for a “peacefulprotest” on the Internet after a the district school board rejectedparents’ complaints about the dress code policy.

Dickson said she felt the three students who sued the district are”extremely courageous and brave.”

“These three students in particular were motivated by a desire tostick up for people who were not in a position to stick up forthemselves,” she said. “They have great families and they facedextreme pressure from the community to not sue the district.”

Lowry said the experience of the case helped him understand what he wouldlike to do as a career.

“It makes me want to do a lot more activism,” he said. “Ilike standing up for myself and I like to fight the power.”

The case is precedent for the 8th Circuit, which covers the states ofArkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Ifaccepted by the Supreme Court, the outcome of the case could become law for theentire country.