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Opinion

Freedom to say what school officials allow

I’m still trying to get my head around the idea that a public school can ban a student from wearing a T-shirt with the First Amendment printed on the back.

Where is that written in the Constitution?

“Congress shall make no law …” isn’t really an anything-goes license for expression. But surely even limits on students’ speech must themselves abide by reasonable limits.

Most of the news stories I’ve seen about the lawsuit Pete Palmer and his parents filed against the Waxahachie, Texas, school district have focused on his being told his “John Edwards for President” shirt violated the high school’s dress code.

Not so highlighted is the fact that officials also rejected a shirt flaunting the text of the First Amendment.

And a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week said it would not issue a preliminary injunction against enforcing the ban.

If you analyze the case by just applying sterile legal tests, I suppose, maybe you can reach that conclusion.

As court papers describe the dispute, Palmer was a sophomore who showed up at school in September 2007 wearing a black T-shirt that read “San Diego.”

An assistant principal said he was violating the dress code’s no-messages provision, so his father brought him a T-shirt with a logo resembling a John Edwards ’08 bumper sticker.

Couldn’t wear that one either. Palmer and his lawyer-father couldn’t convince various district officials that the code should exempt clearly political messages that weren’t disruptive, lewd or advocating illegal behavior.

So the family sued.

Under a revised dress code, students could no longer tout their favorite college or pro team but could flash political buttons, bumper stickers or wristbands. That was supposed to compensate for not being able to wear even an Edwards for President polo shirt or a T-shirt with “Freedom of Speech” on the front and the First Amendment on the back, both of which officials rejected, according to the 5th Circuit.

In a series of rulings, the most famous of which is Tinker v. Des Moines School District in 1969, the Supreme Court has said that students don’t shed their constitutional free-speech rights at the schoolhouse gate.

But none of those cases really matter for Waxahachie, it turns out, because the dress code bars all messages – innocuous, popular or controversial – that aren’t related to school teams, groups or activities.

That makes it viewpoint-neutral, the 5th Circuit said, and therefore a pretty straightforward call: Promotes an important government interest; doesn’t aim to suppress speech; and is not broader than necessary.

This ruling also makes me wonder where the court will go with another dress code brouhaha in which students and their parents decided to pick a fight.

A different three-judge panel heard arguments in February over whether Burleson (Texas) High School could require a pair of students to leave their Confederate flag purses home.

This is not a content-neutral rule; it admittedly targeted displays that officials said had caused too much racial hostility and turmoil to be allowed at school.

The girls, who’ve since graduated, have argued that the amount of conflict has been exaggerated, the school doesn’t uniformly police inappropriate displays and, in any event, displaying the flag promotes healthy discussion.

It would be just perverse if a federal appeals court were to let Waxahachie ban the First Amendment on a shirt but require Burleson to allow Confederate flag-emblazoned purses.

But it wouldn’t be the first time the First Amendment’s been stood on its head.

Linda P. Campbell is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star- Telegram. Her e-mail address is lcampbell@star-telegram.com.


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