A federal appeals court last week upheld against a First Amendment challenge a Kentucky school district’s student dress code that prohibits many fashions popular with teenagers and preteens: baggy pants, bluejeans, “distressed” clothing, unnaturally colored hair, and body piercings except those in ears.
The policy of the 2,300-student Fort Thomas district near Cincinnati was challenged in 2001 by lawyer Robert E. Blau on behalf of his daughter, Amanda, who was then a 6th grader.
Their suit said Ms. Blau opposed the dress code because she wanted to wear clothes that “look nice on her” and that “she feels good in.”
Many of the school’s students “looked like rows of corn” under the dress code, Mr. Blau said in an interview. The district’s dress code was “taking away a child’s right to wear clothing of their [generation’s] age” and suppressing their individuality, he said.
But both a federal district judge in Kentucky and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, rejected the family’s challenge.
The appeals court panel ruled unanimously on Feb. 8 that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech did not cover the family’s claim because Ms. Blau was seeking protection for “a generalized and vague desire to express her middle school individuality” and not any particular message.
“The First Amendment does not protect such vague and attenuated notions of expression—namely, self-expression through any and all clothing that a 12-year-old may wish to wear on a given day,” said the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffery S. Sutton.
‘Sense of Individuality’
The district’s goals in adopting the dress code in 2001—such as improving the learning environment and helping bridge socioeconomic differences between families—did not regulate any viewpoint and furthered important governmental interests, the opinion said.
The court also rejected a claim by Mr. Blau that the dress code interfered with his right to direct the upbringing of his child. Judge Sutton said that while parents may decide whether to send their children to public schools, they don’t have a right to direct how school authorities handle matters such as a dress code.
Mr. Blau said last week that he plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Clothing is an expression in and of itself,” he said. “When everyone looks the same, they start acting the same, and you lose your sense of individuality.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Court OKs Ky. District’s Dress Code