Oklahoma school district did not violate student’s First Amendment rights by banning eagle feather, court rules

A federal judge has ruled that an Oklahoma school district did not violate a student’s First Amendment rights when officials refused to let her wear an eagle feather on her cap during her high school graduation ceremony.

Hayden Griffith filed a suit against Caney Valley Public Schools six days before her graduation ceremony at Caney Valley High School in May 2015. The suit came after school officials told Griffith she would not be allowed to wear the eagle feather, citing a school policy that prevents students from wearing decorations on their graduation caps.

Griffith, who is a member of both the Cherokee Nation and the Delaware Tribe of Indians, argued the school violated her First Amendment rights and the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, which protects individuals’ right to exercise their religion.

Five days later, the U.S. Northern District Court of Oklahoma concluded “that she had failed to show a substantial likelihood of success on the merits,” and denied her request for a preliminary injunction so that she could wear the eagle feather during the ceremony. With the ceremony having passed, Griffith then filed an amended complaint to the district court requesting minimal damages and a declaratory judgement from the court under the same arguments outlined in the initial complaint.

In a decision released Jan. 5, the court decided the school did not violate Griffith’s freedom of speech or her right to free expression. The court did dismiss her ORFA violation claims without prejudice, meaning they could be re-filed in a state court.

Griffith had received the eagle feather from a Delaware tribal elder “in recognition of her academic success, graduation from high school, and passage into adulthood,” according to the court opinion.

In her culture, eagles are considered to be close to God and their feathers are seen as sacred. And when an eagle feather is given, it is considered disrespectful to not wear it for that ceremonial occasion, according to the opinion. Although the school gave her other options, including wearing the feather in her hair or on a necklace, Griffith’s religious beliefs require the feather to be worn on the head.

Chief Judge Gregory Frizzell rejected Griffith’s freedom of speech claim citing the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In the opinion, Frizzell decided that while Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District protects students’ speech in their individual capacity as citizens, Hazelwood allows school administrators to control speech in school-sponsored activities as long as there are legitimate educational concerns. Frizzell ruled that the graduation regalia is school-sponsored speech, and therefore can be controlled under the Hazelwood decision.

“Here, the school has not created a forum (of any kind) for student expression on their graduation caps. Indeed, as Griffith herself acknowledges, the school does not allow students any form of personal expression on their graduation caps during the commencement ceremony,” according to the opinion.

Frizzell also writes that although the school permits other items that recognize academic achievement, such as sashes, those items are not worn on the graduation cap and are related to school-sponsored activities.

Because the school issued so much control over the graduation ceremony, observers could reasonably conclude the regalia and caps represent school-sponsored speech, Frizzell wrote in the opinion. Frizzell concluded the cap-and-gown dress code does represent a legitimate educational concern as it avoids controversy.

“Such a policy promotes unity, discipline, and respect for authority, and allows the school to reserve special recognition for student achievement or participation in school-related activities,” he wrote.

Griffith argued that the apparel policy should be subjected to the highest rigor of judicial review (“strict scrutiny”) because it represents a content-based restriction on free speech. But the judge ruled that the school’s graduation cap policy was not based on the content of speech and was generally applicable to all students regardless of message — noting that the school’s policy dictates “hats may not be decorated at all” — and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny.

“Griffith has not alleged any facts showing that school’s no-cap-decoration policy applies or was enforced against her for religious reasons,” Frizzell wrote. “Indeed, the facts alleged show exactly the opposite.”

Although the court rejected Griffith’s First Amendment violation claims, the court decided to defer judgement to the state court system on whether the school district’s actions violated her rights under the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act. The court dismissed Griffith’s ORFA claim without prejudice.