Public schools are free to impose uniform requirements on students, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday. In a precedent-setting decision, the judges rejected arguments by some students that their First Amendment rights were being violated.
Judge Michael Hawkins said the rules are acceptable as long as they are not aimed at suppressing a specific viewpoint.
Monday’s ruling upholds a policy imposed by Clark County, Nev., on its school system. But the decision, unless overturned, is binding on all schools within the circuit, including Arizona.
The rule in this case required students to wear solid khaki-colored bottoms with a solid color shirt of red, white or blue, with or without the school’s logo.
Among the complaints in the lawsuit against the school district was that the 2003 regulation prevented students from wearing T-shirts expressing messages, including religious beliefs.
Hawkins, however, said the evidence shows that wasn’t the intent of the school board — even if that was the practical effect.
“Nothing in the regulation’s language suggests it was directed at the type of messages or specific viewpoints previously conveyed by students’ wardrobe choices,” the judge wrote.
Instead, Hawkins said, all the evidence says there were legitimate reasons for the rules, ranging from making it harder for students to hide weapons to eliminating dress differences that emphasize different family incomes and promoting education.
And that, he said, makes such regulations allowable.
“Indeed, it is hard to think of a government interest more important than the interest in fostering conducive learning environments for our nation’s children,” Hawkins said.
Beyond that, Hawkins said there was no evidence that school officials were trying to stifle legitimate free-speech activities.
“Students are still permitted (if not encouraged) to have verbal conversations with other students, publish articles in school newspapers, and join student clubs,” the judge wrote.
Monday’s ruling brought a stinging dissent from Judge Sidney Thomas who accused his colleagues of “analytical sleight of hand” by looking at the school’s goals rather than the student’s rights.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court has said the free-speech rights of students can be curtailed only when it would impinge on other students’ rights or when it would result in a “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.’’
Here, Thomas said, there was no indication that the T-shirts being worn by one student espousing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would do either.