That's the spirit | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, February 22, 2007

That's the spirit

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2007 at 11:58 AM

Just in from the ACLU, which is suing Watson Chapel schools in federal court for stifling student speech. The press release is on the jump.
Little Rock, ArkansasThe ACLU of Arkansas filed papers in federal court today adding additional claims for Watson Chapel students who were disciplined for wearing black armbands to protest the school dress code and its harsh, inconsistent enforcement.
The amended complaint filed today includes a claim that the district’s student apparel policy itself violates the right to due process and to freedom of speech. The policy does not allow students to wear anything that expresses a message other than school logos or “spirit wear” that express support for the school. According to the complaint this bans student speech as expressed through clothing or adornments, and therefore violates the First Amendment. Today’s complaint also charges that a separate school policy regarding student distribution of printed material is content-based and violates students’ free speech. 
 “We are asking the court to find that the student apparel and literature policies are illegal and unenforceable because they violate students’ constitutional rights,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “Students have a right to wear a button for or against the war in Iraq or to pass out literature that is critical of school policies: that’s the American way.”
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of three students in October 2006. One of the students in the ACLU lawsuit was prevented by school officials from distributing flyers to other students criticizing the apparel policy. After a preliminary hearing, Federal District Judge Leon Holmes issued an order prohibiting the district from disciplining students for wearing the armbands, noting that testimony of school officials left “the distinct impression that the students were disciplined because the black armbands signified a protest, not because they defeated uniformity.” 
The complaint cites examples of students being disciplined and or suspended from school for variations from the policy so minor that parents and students felt they had no way of knowing what clothing would and would not be acceptable. According to the ACLU, students were disciplined for having belts that were braided, not the right shade of brown or black, had too many holes, had adornments, or had stitching that was not the same color as the belt; for having pants with an extra pocket, khaki pants that were not the right shade or style, or whose stitching was a different color from the pants; for wearing polo shirts with too many or too few buttons; or for wearing any clothing bearing a manufacturer’s tag. The policy allows students to wear only khaki pants, a black or brown belt, and polo-style shirt in specified colors.
When school officials did not act to change the policy or its enforcement, students wore armbands in silent protest of the policy and its seemingly arbitrary enforcement. Students and parents testified at the preliminary hearing that an article of clothing could be suitable to some officials but not to others.
Attorney Rebekah Kennedy of Fort Smith entered an appearance in the case and will serve as the ACLU cooperating attorney. Kennedy noted that, “If students are required to follow a school policy, they have the right to have one that is clear, reasonable, and consistently applied.”


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