Earlier this week the Supreme Court denied petition to review a high school student’s challenge to his school’s dress code. In denying review, the Supreme Court has chosen to leave the lower court’s holding intact — a holding that serves as a dangerous curtailment of students’ rights of freedom of expression.
Paul “Pete” Palmer was found to be in violation of his school’s dress code when, in the fall of his sophomore year of high school, he wore a t-shirt to class that read “San Diego.” Palmer called his parents, who brought him a different t-shirt to change into. That shirt, however, was also found to be in violation of the dress code, for it read “John Edwards for President ’08” across the front.
In response, Palmer sued the school district for violating his freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Palmer argued that the school’s dress code contravened the principles espoused by the Supreme Court over 40 years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. In Tinker, which is the seminal case regarding the free expression of students, the Supreme Court held that restrictions on protected speech cannot be justified unless there is a “showing that students’ activities would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”
In Palmer’s case, the Circuit Court conceded that Palmer’s t-shirts were neither lewd, disruptive nor drug-related, and were thus protected under the First Amendment. However, the court ultimately held that the school’s dress code was constitutionally permissible for the sole reason that was viewpoint- and content-neutral. In arriving at this conclusion, the court relied on the precedence of another Fifth Circuit case, Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board. In Canady, the Fifth Circuit took the liberty of removing First Amendment protection from an additional category of speech beyond those already designated by the Supreme Court, leaving school districts with the power to impose almost unlimited restrictions on student dress.
In denying review of Palmer’s case, the Supreme Court has effectively upheld the Fifth Circuit’s finding that school districts may impose far-reaching and poorly-justified bans on student speech — so long as the bans are viewpoint- and content-neutral. The end result is a harrowing erosion of Tinker and its protection of students’ freedom of expression.