Arkansas school district asks Supreme Court to hear black armband case

ARKANSAS — The Watson Chapel School District has filed apetition to have the United States Supreme Court decide the legality ofpunishing students for wearing protest armbands.

In September, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. districtcourt’s decision in favor of Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan, Michael Josephand their parents in Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District, saying theschool district violated the students’ First Amendment rights bysuspending them for wearing black armbands to protest the schooldistrict’s dress code policy.

In the petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, the schooldistrict asks the Court to decide whether the 8th Circuit improperly appliedTinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a landmark1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized that students do not”shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at theschoolhouse gate.” Tinker said that students who wore armbands toprotest the Vietnam War were allowed to express themselves freely unless theiractions caused a “material and substantial disruption” of normalschool operations or an invasion of rights of other students.

Watson Chapel School District said in the petition for certiorari that the”misapplication of Tinker can have far reachingeffects.”

“The prioritization of emphasis by the school district on oneactivity versus another is just the type of discretionary function of localschools that courts should not interfere with,” the writ stated. “Asthis Court has noted, the determination of what manner of speech in theclassroom or in the school assembly is appropriate and properly rests with theschool rather than the federal courts.”

Holly Dickson, American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas staff attorney,has represented the students in their case. She said she took objection with thepetition claim that the Supreme Court must intervene to resolve a “splitamong the Eighth, Fifth and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning theapplication of Tinker to school dress codes.”

Ivy Lincoln, assistant superintendent of finance and compliance and civilrights coordinator for the school district, said the district had no commentaccept to say the school district is “pursuing our appeal rights in thewords of the petition.”

The Watson Chapel School District contends in the petition that the SupremeCourt rulings in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Morse v.Frederick give schools broad authority to discipline the students forwearing armbands.

Hazelwood, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruled that highschool administrators can censor school-sponsored publications by showing theyhave a legitimate educational reason for doing so. In Morse, commonlyknown as “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that astudent’s speech while at a school-sponsored event could be censored if itwas reasonably interpreted as encouraging drug abuse.

Dickson, who received the writ of certiorari this afternoon, said she neverwanted the case to go to any court.

“What I wanted was for them to honor these students’ rights tofree speech,” Dickson said. “If we have to go to the U.S. SupremeCourt in order to get them to honor these students’ right to free speech,then so be it.”