Law & Courts

U.S. Appeals Court Backs District’s Rules on School Uniforms

By Mark Walsh — May 15, 2008 3 min read

A federal appeals court has upheld a school district’s policies permitting individual schools to decide whether to require students to wear uniforms.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 2-1 on May 12 that the policies of the Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, do not violate the First Amendment rights of students.

“The district’s uniform policies limit only one form of student expression (while leaving open many other channels for student communication),” and they are “consistent with the district’s goals of creating a productive, distraction-free educational environment for its students,” said the majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins in Jacobs v. Clark County School District.

The case involves a 2003 policy that added to the basic dress code rules for the 310,000-student district by allowing individual schools to establish more-stringent policies on student attire if those schools’ parents supported the idea in surveys.

A typical school policy requires khaki pants and solid-color polo shirts or other shirts with no messages permitted except a school logo.

The policy was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada on behalf of several students, including one high school student who was repeatedly suspended for wearing religious messages on her clothing. Some students in the lawsuit objected to the “forced uniformity” of the policy or maintained that their religious beliefs required them to embrace their individuality.

A federal district court largely upheld the district’s uniform policies in a summary judgment.

Meeting the Test

The 9th Circuit majority said that the school uniform policies were viewpoint- and content-neutral, and that under an “intermediate scrutiny” standard of review for First Amendment questions, the policies passed muster as long as they furthered an important governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free speech and had only incidental restrictions on protected speech.

The court said the Clark County district met that test because school officials submitted affidavits saying that the policy had helped improve student achievement, promoted safety, and enhanced the school environment.

Citing a “Manual on School Uniforms” put out by the U.S. Department of Education in 1996, under President Clinton, the majority further said that the federal department has “acknowledged the efficacy of school uniforms.” That was the same year that Mr. Clinton promoted school uniforms in his State of the Union address. The current Bush administration has not been as outspoken on the issue, and the efficacy of uniform policies has been questioned by some education researchers. (“Uniform Effects?,” Jan. 12, 2005.)

A Dissent

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 Independent Community 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 said: “Confining messages to pro-government content cannot be said to be viewpoint- or content-neutral.”

Bill Hoffman, the general counsel for the Clark County district, said 50 of the district’s 312 schools have enacted parent-supported uniform policies.

“The court said kids have other ways of expressing themselves,” Mr. Hoffman said, pointing to a passage in the majority opinion that said students could still have conversations with their peers, publish articles in school newspapers, and join student clubs.

Allen Lichtenstein, the general counsel of the ACLU of Nevada, said he found the reference to school newspapers as a forum for unfettered student expression ironic, since the Supreme Court has ruled that such publications are ultimately under the control of school authorities.

He said the plaintiffs would seek a rehearing before a larger panel of judges on the 9th Circuit court.

“By definition, a uniform is communicative,” Mr. Lichtenstein said. He also scoffed at the majority’s conclusion that school logos permitted as part of the uniforms were only meant to be, as the court put it, “an identifying mark, not a communicative device.”

“If logos don’t have any communicative element,” Mr. Lichtenstein said, “try telling Coca-Cola or McDonald’s that their symbols don’t communicate anything.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week as U.S. Appeals Court Backs District’s Rules on School Uniforms

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

DevOps Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
Senior Business Analyst - 12 Month Contract
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
User Experience Analyst
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
Senior Director Marketing
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Camelot Education

Read Next

Law & Courts Biden Administration, Education Groups Back School District in Student Online Speech Case
A Pennsylvania district and its allies argue that administrators need to be able to discipline students for threatening or bullying speech.
5 min read
supreme court SOC
Getty
Law & Courts Federal Appeals Court Upholds School's Removal of 4th Grader's Essay on LGBTQ Rights
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit backs a principal who said the essay was age-inappropriate for inclusion in a school booklet.
4 min read
Image shows a courtroom and gavel.
imaginima/E+
Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court Is Asked to Take Up Harvard's Consideration of Race in Admissions
Lower courts rejected claims by Students for Fair Admissions that the Harvard policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants.
3 min read
Rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. on March 7, 2017.
Rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass.
Charles Krupa/AP
Law & Courts Accused Texas School Shooter to Remain at State Hospital
Doctors say the student accused of fatally shooting 10 people at a Texas high school in 2018 remains incompetent to stand trial.
1 min read
Santa Fe High School freshman, Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses representing victims in front the school in Santa Fe, Texas on May 21, 2018.
Santa Fe High School freshman, Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses representing victims in front the school in Santa Fe, Texas on May 21, 2018.
Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP