Justices Refuse to Hear Appeal on School Uniform Protest

By Mark Walsh — March 02, 2009 1 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to hear the appeal of an Arkansas school district over students’ black-armband protests against a school uniform policy.

The Watson Chapel school district was seeking high court review of an appeals court ruling that said the students’ protest was protected under the 1969 landmark student speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

The district implemented the uniform policy in 2006 for grades 7 through 12. That fall, several students were disciplined for wearing black armbands--the same method used by the students in Tinker to protest the Vietnam War--to express their opposition to the school dress code. There was no suggestion that the armband protest disrupted school.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled for the students.

The school district sought “to distinguish Tinker by emphasizing that the Tinker students protested the federal government’s Vietnam war policy, whereas here the protest object was merely a school dress code,” the 8th Circuit court said last September. “This distinction is immaterial. Whether
student speech protests national foreign policy or local school board policy is not constitutionally significant.”

The Watson Chapel district, in its appeal to the Supreme Court, argued that an apparel-based protest to a school apparel policy should be subject to a lesser standard of review under the First Amendment.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, representing the protesting students, said in a brief that this was a straightforward case under Tinker and its “bedrock principle that students cannot be punished merely for expressing thier personal views on the school premises.”

The justices declined without comment to hear the district’s appeal in Watson Chapel School District v. Lowry (Case No. 08-716).

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