Justices Decline Appeal on Student T-Shirts

By Mark Walsh — January 11, 2010 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear a student’s challenge to a Texas school district’s dress code that prohibits most messages on student shirts, including political slogans.

Returning from their holiday recess, the justices also refused appeals on teacher testing and school district taxation of satellite TV revenues.

In the T-shirt case, a student and his parents appealed a decision last August by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, that upheld the denial of 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 permits only small logos or symbols of school clubs or promoting school spirit. The dress code does allow political messages on buttons, pins, and wrist bands.

Palmer and his parents sued under the First Amendment, arguing that wearing of the shirts would not disrupt school, that they were not drug-related or sexually explicit, and that their wearing would not appear as school-sponsored speech and thus would be protected expression.

The family lost in both a federal district court and in the 5th Circuit, which ruled Aug. 13 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.”

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Palmer said the 5th Circuit decision “threatens to vest government-run schools with virtually unfettered authority to censor student speech.”

Palmer’s appeal was supported by several legal groups, including the American Center for Law and Justice, the Institute for Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Christian Legal Society.

The Waxahachie school district urged the justices to deny the appeal, saying the 5th Circuit decision was correct and that the fact that the case involved a preliminary injunction made it a poor vehicle for Supreme Court review.

The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal in Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District (Case No. 09-409).

In the teacher-testing case, the justices declined without comment an appeal by a New York City teacher with dyslexia who sought an accommodation to use a dictionary as a spelling aid for the essay portion of a state teaching test.

Marsha Falchenberg sued after she lost her job as a result of her failure to pass New York State’s Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, or LAST. She lost in both a federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, which ruled last year that spelling was among the skills being tested on the LAST and thus that no accommodation was required under federal disability law.

The appeal was Falchenberg v. New York City Department of Education (No. 09-471).

Finally, the justices declined an appeal by the state of Kentucky and the Frankfort school district of court rulings that invalidated a state law applying school taxes to providers of direct satellite television. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that state tax law was preempted by the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The case was Treesh v. DirecTV Inc. (No. 09-355).

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