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ACLU, students win

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The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Watson Chapel School District over its disciplining of students who wore armbands in protest of the school's dress code. From the ACLU press release:

“This was a predictable outcome, as it has been clear from the outset that suspending students simply for expressing their opinion is a violation of their constitutional rights,” said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas, which sued WCSD in 2006 on behalf of three of the students who were suspended for wearing the wristbands. “The Watson Chapel School District is not exempt from having to comply with the First Amendment, and the students in this case deserve a lot of credit for having the courage to stand up for what is right.”


Press release is on the jump.


Supreme Court of United States Sides with

ACLU and Students on Free Speech

High Court refuses to hear appeal of Watson Chapel School District


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 4, 2009


LITTLE ROCK— The U.S. Supreme Court this week chose to leave in place two judicial rulings that Watson Chapel School District (WCSD) officials violated the law by disciplining students for wearing black armbands to protest the district’s dress code.


Monday’s refusal by the Supreme Court to hear a WCSD appeal of the two rulings effectively upholds decisions by both a federal district court judge and the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that school officials violated students’ free speech rights by suspending them for wearing the armbands to silently oppose the district’s policy requiring them to wear uniforms to school.


“This was a predictable outcome, as it has been clear from the outset that suspending students simply for expressing their opinion is a violation of their constitutional rights,” said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas, which sued WCSD in 2006 on behalf of three of the students who were suspended for wearing the wristbands. “The Watson Chapel School District is not exempt from having to comply with the First Amendment, and the students in this case deserve a lot of credit for having the courage to stand up for what is right.”


The ACLU of Arkansas filed its lawsuit after hundreds of students who wore the armbands to school in protest of what they said was a restrictive, unclear and arbitrarily enforced dress code policy were subjected to various levels of harassment and discipline by school officials. Many of the students were ordered to throw the arm bands away, some were issued written disciplines and others were suspended from school. School officials even forced a group of junior high school students into a library guarded by an armed police officer until their disciplines were processed by school officials.


A federal district court judge ruled in 2006 that the school must permit the wearing of the armbands pending trial and, in 2007 the judge ruled that the students were well within their rights to wear the armbands and that district and school officials had violated their free speech rights by disciplining them for doing so.


WCSD appealed the ruling to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court decision in XXX by drawing a comparison to the landmark 1969 students’ free speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in which 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 U. S. Constitution


“Parents and students contacted us in a panic when officials announced they would discipline students for wearing armbands,” said ACLU of Arkansas staff attorney Holly Dickson. “We contacted the district's lawyer to ask them not to suspend students for this because it would violate their rights, but they suspended them anyway. The district’s insistence on taking this to the Supreme Court only served to clarify that these students had an absolute right to express themselves.”


At issue earlier in the suit but not on appeal was the constitutionality of the school's apparel policy. The federal district court ruled that it was constitutional, however a state law which was not at issue in the federal case requires districts who passed uniform policies subsequent to the 1999 state law to allow individual students to make application to opt out of the uniform requirements with parental consent where no other reasonable alternative placement for the student exists. The district had a uniform policy when state law passed in 1999, but the dress code has since been dramatically amended. Dickson noted that after the initial ruling in the case in 2006 requiring officials to permit armbands, district officials' enforcement of the policy relaxed considerably, though they refused to admit they'd wrongfully punished students for apparel violations or armband violations.


“We've always believed in Colton,” said Frank Dougan, father of student plaintiff Colton Dougan, when told of Monday's decision. “Families could not keep buying pair after perfectly good pair of pants so that their kids could go to school. Colton saw this as wrong, and he was willing to risk a suspension to stand up for what he believed in. We're very proud of him and all the other students who had the courage to stand up for what they knew was right.”

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