ACLU NEWS RELEASE
LITTLE ROCK The ACLU of Arkansas has filed suit in federal court charging that the Watson Chapel school district violated students’ free speech rights by suspending students for wearing black wristbands in opposition to the school uniform policy. Students planned to wear black wristbands to school Friday, October 6th to silently protest the policy. When school officials discovered the plan, they announced that students wearing the wristbands would be suspended from school for three days; several students wore the wristbands anyway and were suspended and sent home that day.
Ever since the school district passed the highly restrictive uniform policy, parents and students have voiced their opposition to it. Last night parents had the chance to tell their children’s stories and make their views known and at a special hearing of the school board. The school board took no action.
The ACLU is asking the court: 1) to stop the school district from suspending any more students for wearing the wristbands, 2) to tell the district to clear the disciplinary records of any students already suspended and have the rights restored to them that may have been lost as a result of the suspension (such as participation in a club or other extracurricular activity), and, 3) allow students to make up for any lost work due to the suspensions.
“What kind of citizens do we expect to send out to the world with instruction like this about ‘the Land of the Free’?” asked ACLU of Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar. “How do we explain the meaning of the American Revolution to students when we tell them they can’t disagree with authorities – in the most peaceful, lawful, constitutionally protected way – because ‘rules are rules’? Hopefully students and school officials alike are getting the civics lesson of their lives: that people have rights, and the right to fight for them.”
In the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District the U.S. Supreme Court held that students engaging in symbolic speech and political expression by wearing armbands to protest the Vietnam War were protected under the first amendment to the United States Constitution. In that case, too, school officials claimed the demonstrated difference of opinion would disturb or disrupt the atmosphere at school; now, as then, there was no disruption, even after some students had worn their wristbands late into the day.
"When government officials try to intimidate people from exercising their free speech rights, and punish them because they don't like what they have to say, it’s a serious free speech violation," said staff attorney Holly Dickson. "The students who had the nerve to wear a simple armband are faced with failing grades and exclusion from school activities. Watson Chapel School District has had every chance to prevent this, but they have refused to correct their mistakes. These parents have no choice but to file a lawsuit to protect their children's rights."