ACLU Challenges a Colorado High School's Ban on Colombine Ribbons at Graduation

May 21, 1999 12:00 am

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Friday, May 21, 1999

DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed suit today of behalf of Andrea Byrd, a graduating senior at Alameda High School who — along with other students — wants to pin a blue-and-silver ribbon to her graduation gown to show her respect for the families of the victims of the recent killings at Columbine High School.

In a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Denver, the ACLU has asked the court to grant an emergency temporary restraining order and issue a ruling before the graduation ceremony takes place on the morning of Monday May 24, 1999.

Deborah Williams, principal of Alameda High School — located in the same county as Columbine — announced yesterday that students would not be permitted to wear the ribbons during the graduation ceremony. After Byrd and her father asked for legal assistance on Thursday evening, the ACLU wrote to Williams this morning, urging reconsideration of the policy. The school refused, and the lawsuit was filed early this afternoon.

“The ribbon quietly communicates Andrea’s respect in a dignified and unobtrusive manner that is entirely consistent with the tone and format of the graduation ceremony,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “Wearing the ribbon cannot possibly take anything away from the graduation ceremony, nor does it pose any danger to any legitimate interest of the school.”

In legal papers, the ACLU said that policy violated students’ constitutional right to engage in free expression under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as state constitutional and statutory law.

Today’s lawsuit marks the second time in two years that the ACLU of Colorado has advocated for the right of students to engage in silent symbolic expression during a graduation ceremony. Last year, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of two African American students who wanted to express pride in their African heritage by wearing a traditional ceremonial Ghanian Kente cloth over their graduation gowns.

The students voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit after federal district court judge Richard Matsch denied their request for a preliminary injunction. In ruling against the students, Judge Matsch expressed the view that wearing Kente cloth emphasized the students’ racial difference thus undermined the message of unity that the school’s graduation ceremony was intended to project.

In its letter to Williams, the ACLU explained that the Columbine ribbon would not undermine the school’s graduation ceremony or its message.

“We believe that the First Amendment protects a student’s right to wear the ribbon during a graduation ceremony,” said Ed Ramey, who filed the lawsuit as an ACLU volunteer cooperating attorney. “The Supreme Court repeatedly has said that students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gates.”

The case is Byrd v. Williams et al. Defendants in the lawsuit are Alameda High School principal Deborah Williams and the Jefferson County School District R-1.

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