9th Circuit Upholds School Uniform Policy

By Mark Walsh — May 12, 2008 1 min read
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A federal appeals court today upheld a school district’s mandatory school uniform policy in the face of a multi-pronged First Amendment challenge.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 2-1 to uphold the uniform policy of the Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas.

“In a case of first impression in this circuit, we ... largely conclude that public school mandatory dress policies survive constitutional scrutiny,” said the majority opinion by Judge Michael Daly Hawkins in Jacobs v. Clark County School District.

The case involves a 2003 policy that set a basic dress code for all schools and then allowed individual schools to establish more stringent school uniform policies when parents returned surveys supporting the idea. A typical school uniform policy required khaki pants and solid-color polo shirts or other shirts with no messages except a school logo.

The policy was challenged on behalf of several students, including those who were forbidden from wearing religious messages as well as those who generally objected to having to wear a uniform.

The 9th Circuit majority said the school uniform policies were viewpoint- and content-neutral, and under a standard of intermediate scrutiny under the First Amendment, the policies further government interests such as promoting safety and enhancing the school environment.

The majority also cites with approval the Manual on School Uniforms put out by the U.S. Department of Education in 1996, under President Clinton. That manual appears to be archived on the department’s Web site.

Writing in dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas said the majority had failed to properly apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the 1969 case upholding the right of students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War as long as school was not substantially disrupted.

Noting that the uniform policies prohibit “all messages on clothing, except for messages that support the school,” Judge Thomas added: “Confining messages to pro-government content cannot be said to be viewpoint- or content-neutral.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.