ACLU Challenges Louisiana School's Ban on Armbands As Violation of Students' First Amendment Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
November 1, 1999 12:00 am

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BOSSIER CITY, LA -- Reenacting a 30-year-old landmark constitutional debate, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a sophomore honor student who was threatened after she wore a black armband in protest of a mandatory school uniform policy.

The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Elizabeth Fisher, the mother of Jennifer Roe, a Parkway High School student who maintains a 4.0 grade point average and who serves as elected vice president of her class. In August, Roe and several other students wore a black armband to protest a newly imposed school uniform policy.

During the school day, Parkway's principal Kim Gaspard pulled Roe and three other students out of class and asked them to remove the armbands or face punishment for a uniform violation, which could have ultimately meant suspension or expulsion. Fearing that disciplinary action would have an adverse affect on their transcript and school records, Roe and her classmates removed the armbands and returned to class.

"School officials like Mr. Gaspard discount the rule of law in a free and democratic society when they treat the constitutional rights of students as mere platitudes subject to the whimsical interpretation of school administrators," said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

"The ACLU exists to remind such officials that schools are not prisons, students are not inmates and the vigilant protection of constitutional liberty is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools."

In complaining to the ACLU, Roe pointed to the Supreme Court's 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the Justices ruled that under the First Amendment, public school students had the right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war.

Principal Gaspard, however, told Roe and her parents that he and the school board did not care about the court's ruling in Tinker and suggested the family take the issue to court.

In its federal lawsuit -- which is being heard by Judge Donald Walter of the Federal District Court of Louisiana, Western District, Shreveport Division -- the ACLU says that the school has refused to allow the peaceful and non-disruptive wearing of black armbands. The lawsuit asks Judge Walter to:

  • Declare that the ban on black armbands is unconstitutional.
  • Grant a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining the defendants from enforcing the Parkway ban on Roe and from taking any disciplinary action against her now or in the future on account of the issue.
  • Award the Fisher family costs, reasonable attorney's fees and any other relief the Court deems appropriate.

"Jennifer Roe reminds all of us that a public high school's educational mission contains an indispensable element of intellectual and social development--namely, the freedom to question, express, inquire, and criticize, which the founders of our republic regarded as the heart of democratic civic life," the ACLU's Cook said.

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