Court Backs School’s Restrictions on T-Shirt Messages

By Mark Walsh — August 14, 2009 1 min read
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A federal appeals court has ruled that a Texas school district’s dress code that prohibits most messages on student shirts, including political slogans, is likely consitutional.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld a lower-court ruling denying a preliminary injunction sought by Paul Palmer, a student at Waxahachie (Texas) High School. In 2007, Palmer sought permission to wear shirts with messages supporting the presidential campaign of John Edwards, as well as another shirt extolling free speech and the First Amendment.

School officials said the shirts violated a dress code that permitted only small logos or symbols of school clubs or promoting school spirit. The dress code did allow political messages on buttons, pins, and wrist bands.

Palmer and his parents sued under the First Amendment, arguing that the student’s proposed shirts would not disrupt school, were not drug-related or sexually explicit, and would not appear as school-sponsored speech and thus were protected expression.

The family lost in both a federal district court and in the 5th Circuit, which ruled Aug. 13 in Palmer v. Waxahachie School District that the dress code’s restriction on messages was a content-neutral regulation of speech.

The court said one goal of the school district with its dress code, “promoting
professional and responsible dress,” was justifiable “because students are
prepared for a working world in which pins and buttons may be appropriate at work but large, stark political message t-shirts usually are not.”

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