In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected public school students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Over fifty years later, a Tennessee public school is prohibiting students from wearing shirts with “designs, pictures, symbols, or writing” that are “political.” The policy also includes vague and overbroad bans on shirts displaying “inappropriate” or “offensive” expression, which gives school officials effectively unfettered discretion to ban any expressive shirts they don’t like.
As Tinker made clear, K-12 students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
On Tuesday, the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Lookout Valley Middle/High School in Chattanooga, explaining that its ban on political attire is contrary to decades of settled First Amendment precedent and calling on the school to revoke it.
As Tinker made clear, K-12 students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Schools can regulate student speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the school’s operation, but an “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.”
The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed this principle in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. Calling America’s public schools “nurseries of democracy,” the Court emphasized the importance of not only protecting the First Amendment rights of young Americans, but educating them about the values of free speech and tolerance of unpopular ideas.
Lookout Valley’s dress code teaches students the opposite lesson — that authorities can freely dispense with freedom of speech when it might cause offense or discomfort. FIRE echoes NCAC’s call for the school to revise its dress code to respect students’ First Amendment rights.