SPLC urges federal appeals court to protect Nevada students’ right to protest school dress codes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) is urging a federalappeals court to protect students’ First Amendment rights to non-disruptivelywear clothing that expresses disagreement with school uniform codes.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday with the 9thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the SPLC argued that a studentwho wishes to protest a school uniform rule should not face disciplinary actionunless his protest crosses the line of “material and substantial disruption” ofschool activities. That is the threshold established by the U.S. Supreme Court inthe landmark 1969 case, Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District.

The case, Frudden v.Pilling, was brought by a Reno, Nev., couple in 2011 after the couple’selementary-school children were threatened with disciplinary action for wearingclothing noncompliant with a school uniform code. The family opposes theuniform – which carries the school logo and the slogan, “Tomorrow’s Leaders” –as a symbol of conformity.

On Jan. 31, a U.S. District Court threw out the family’scase, although it was agreed that the students’ decision to wear noncompliantclothing (a soccer uniform, and an inside-out school uniform shirt with theslogan concealed) caused no disturbance. The judge ruled that Tinker did not apply to the students’protest, and that a school could enforce a uniform code regardless of whetherthe students’ method of expressing dissent was disruptive.

In its brief, SPLC argued that the district court’s rulingis inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which establishes that astudent has a First Amendment right to decline to participate in the Pledge ofAllegiance as a means of expressing disagreement with a mandatory-pledgingrule. The SPLC pointed out that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled ina 2008 case, Lowry v. Watson ChapelSchool District, that wearing black armbands to protest a school dress codewas constitutionally protected speech that could not be punished, even thoughthe armbands themselves violated the dress code.

“Virtually the last remaining vehicle where a student todaymay confidently express his views during the school day without fear ofreprisal is the ‘forum’ the student wears on his own body,” the SPLC said inthe brief, noting that post-Tinkercourt rulings have eroded Tinker’sbroad constitutional safeguards. “In this case, the School District seeks todeprive students of those final few uncensored inches. If the ruling below isallowed to stand, then the area within the school where Tinker applies will be essentially an empty set.”

The brief was prepared and filed with the assistance of SPLCvolunteer attorney Louis M. Bubala III of Armstrong Teasdale LLC in Reno. Mr.Bubala, a former college and professional journalist, is an experiencedcommercial litigation attorney who is recognized as an authority in bankruptcylaw.

“Courts continue to retrench on students’ ability tomeaningfully participate in the discussion of political issues relevant totheir lives, and it is essential that the Ninth Circuit reaffirm that schoolscannot punish students for using peaceful, civil methods of making theiropinions heard,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of theSPLC. “These students chose a very measured and restrained way of voicing theirobjection to a policy that was, at that moment, a subject of ongoing politicaldispute before the local school board. Students should be commended, notpunished, for taking an interest in policymaking and attempting to engagepublic support toward changing school rules with which they disagree.”

Since 1974, theStudent Press Law Center has served as the nation’s only nonprofit legalassistance service dedicated to the needs of student journalists and theeducators who work with them. More information about the work of the StudentPress Law Center is available on its website at www.splc.org.