ACLU of Arkansas Says Watson Chapel School Dress Code Violates Free Speech

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
February 22, 2007 12:00 am

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LITTLE ROCK, AR – The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed papers in federal court today charging that the dress code policy of the Watson Chapel School District violates the free expression rights of students. The move comes in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of Watson Chapel students who were disciplined for wearing black armbands to protest the school dress code and its harsh, inconsistent enforcement.

Today’s complaint also charges that a separate school policy regarding student distribution of printed material is content-based and violates students’ free speech. One of the students in the ACLU lawsuit was prevented by school officials from distributing flyers to other students criticizing the dress code.

“We are asking the court to find that the student apparel and literature policies are illegal and unenforceable because they violate students’ constitutional rights,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “Students have a right to wear a button for or against the war in Iraq or to pass out literature that is critical of school policies: that’s the American way.”

The ACLU charged that the policy violates the First Amendment because it endorses selective speech through clothing but bans all other forms of student expression. The policy does not allow students to wear clothing or accessories that express a message other than school logos or “spirit wear” showing school pride.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in October 2006 on behalf of three students who were punished for protesting the policy. After a preliminary hearing, Federal District Judge Leon Holmes issued an order prohibiting the district from disciplining students for wearing black armbands, noting that testimony of school officials left “the distinct impression that the students were disciplined because the black armbands signified a protest, not because they defeated uniformity.”

The complaint cites examples of students being disciplined and or suspended from school for variations from the policy so minor that parents and students felt they had no way of knowing what clothing would be acceptable. According to the ACLU, students were disciplined for having belts that were braided, not the right shade of brown or black, had too many holes, had adornments, or had stitching that was not the same color as the belt; for having pants with an extra pocket, khaki pants that were not the right shade or style, or whose stitching was a different color from the pants; for wearing polo shirts with too many or too few buttons; or for wearing any clothing bearing a manufacturer’s tag. The policy allows students to wear only khaki pants, a black or brown belt, and polo-style shirt in specified colors.

When school officials did not act to change the policy or its enforcement, students wore armbands in silent protest of the policy and its seemingly arbitrary enforcement. Students and parents testified at the preliminary hearing that an article of clothing could be suitable to some officials but not to others.

“If students are required to follow a school policy, they have the right to have one that is clear, reasonable, and consistently applied,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Rebekah Kennedy of Fort Smith.

The case is Lowry v. Watson Chapel School District and is in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Pine Bluff Division.

Today’s complaint is online at:

More information on the case is online at:

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