The US Supreme Court has declined to take up the case of a Texas high school student who was barred from wearing a T-shirt to school with “Freedom of Speech” printed on the front and the text of the First Amendment on the back.
At issue was whether a public school dress code that bans all printed messages except those approved by school officials violated high school students’ free speech rights.
The high court dismissed the case without comment. That leaves in place an appeals court ruling that upheld the school’s policy, expanding the power of school administrators to ban student speech in instances where the restrictions are deemed content-neutral.
The dispute began in 2007 when Paul Palmer, then a sophomore at Waxahachie High School, showed up in class wearing a T-shirt with “San Diego” written on it. An assistant principal informed him that school policy prohibited shirts with written messages.
Mr. Palmer called his parents. They brought him a new shirt. This one proclaimed: “John Edwards for President ’08.”
When school officials rejected that shirt too, Palmer sued, asking a federal judge to enforce his free speech rights under the First Amendment.
The judge dismissed the suit when the school district adopted a new dress code. The new policy permitted written messages promoting school organizations, events, and teams, but it continued to ban non-school-related messages.
That’s when Palmer sought permission to wear his “Freedom of Speech” shirt and the John Edwards shirt.
He sued again, and lost. On appeal, the New Orleans-based Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Waxahachie dress code, saying it did not violate student free speech because it was a content-neutral regulation.
The appeals court said if Palmer wished to express his political views at school he could sport political buttons, which the district did not ban. It added that he was free to express his views after school or through writings.
It is that decision the Supreme Court is being asked to examine in a case called Paul Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District.
Paul’s lawyers wanted the justices to decide whether the appeals court ruling was in conflict with a 1969 landmark Supreme Court precedent, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that case the justices ruled that a public school district could not bar students from wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate,” the court said.
Since the Tinker decision, the court has narrowed that holding by allowing school officials to prohibit student speech that is sexually explicit, lewd, or indecent, to regulate school-sponsored speech, and to ban student speech advocating illegal drug use.
But the core holding in the Tinker case remains unchanged: Schools may restrict student speech only if it interferes with or substantially disrupts school operations.
Lawyers for the school district had urged the high court to allow the appeals court decision to stand. They said it did not conflict with any other appeals court in cases involving content-neutral policies and was not counter to the high court’s holding in the Tinker case.
“Tinker does not change those fundamental principles of First Amendment law in their application to a school context,” wrote Sara Leon in her brief on behalf of the school district. “Expression by students in school may be limited by reasonable and equally applied time, place, and manner restrictions.”
She added, “Tinker remains the rule for testing the validity of a viewpoint-based regulation of student speech in public schools. But it says nothing about the validity of a content- and viewpoint-neutral policy that restricts students’ clothing only during school hours reserved for the schools’ core mission of education.”
In a brief to the court on behalf of Palmer, Houston lawyer Allyson Ho wrote: “Our public schools have a responsibility to teach students about constitutional principles not only as part of the curriculum, but also by faithfully applying them. In the context of a presidential election, that responsibility would seem, if anything, to lead our schools to encourage non-disruptive means of expressing political views – not to stifle them.”
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