Arkansas Students Wrongly Punished for Wearing Armbands to School, According to ACLU Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
October 10, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU Asks Court to Stop School District From Violating Students’ Free Speech Rights

LITTLE ROCK, AR — The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas today filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Watson Chapel school district violated students’ free speech rights by suspending students for wearing black armbands in opposition to the school uniform policy.

Students planned to wear the black armbands, which are about a quarter-inch wide with no writing, to school Friday, October 6th to silently protest the policy. After reports of the plan appeared in the media, school officials announced that students wearing the armbands would be suspended from school for three days. Several students wore the bands anyway and more than 30 elementary, junior high and high school students were disciplined and forced to remove the bands. Sixteen junior high students and four high school students received suspensions.

“When government officials try to intimidate people from exercising their free speech rights, and punish them because they don’t like what they have to say, it’s a serious free speech violation,” said ACLU of Arkansas staff attorney Holly Dickson. “The students who had the courage to wear a simple armband are faced with failing grades and exclusion from school activities. Watson Chapel School District has had every chance to prevent this, but they have refused to correct their mistakes. These parents have no choice but to file a lawsuit to protect their children’s rights.”

For weeks, many parents and students have voiced opposition to the school district’s highly restrictive uniform policy. In fact, before officials threatened to suspend students, one parent handed out more than 200 armbands to students to wear to school. Last night at a special hearing of the school board, several parents expressed concern that students’ rights were being violated, but the school board took no action on the matter.

Along with the complaint filed today, the ACLU submitted affidavits from the students and parents named in the lawsuit. One student, 15-year-old Chris Lowry, said the minute he stepped onto school property he was told he “was in trouble for wearing an armband” and was made to wait in the library with about 24 other students. According to Lowry, “in the library, there were two Pine Bluff police officers and a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy, in uniform and armed, who appeared to be in charge.”

The ACLU is asking the court to stop the school district from suspending any more students for wearing the armbands, to tell the district to clear the disciplinary records of any students already suspended and have privileges restored to them that may have been lost as a result of the suspension (such as participation in a club or other extracurricular activity), and allow students to make up for any lost work due to the suspensions.

“What kind of citizens do we expect to send out to the world with instruction like this about ‘the Land of the Free’?” asked ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “How do we explain the meaning of the American Revolution to students when we tell them they can’t disagree with authorities in a peaceful, lawful and constitutionally protected way? Hopefully students and school officials alike are getting the civics lesson of their lives: that people have rights, and the right to fight for them.”

In a 1969 case brought by the ACLU, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the United States 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 of the Constitution. In its opinion, the Court wrote, “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Today’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of three students and their parents against the Watson Chapel School District and multiple school board officials.

The complaint filed today is online at

The affidavits and a plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction is online at

The plaintiff’s brief in support of their motion for injunction is online at

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