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Dress codes infringe upon First Amendment freedoms

Published: Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09

How a person presents themselves to their peers and to the rest of the world says a lot about how they feel about themselves and who they are as an individual.

People wear different items of clothing for all sorts of reasons: to be in style and follow the latest trends, to support their favorite band or sports team and even for religious and political reasons. Under the First Amendment, individuals have the right to exercise religion and the right of free speech among others, and limiting a person's way of expression abuses these rights.

Dress codes in schools are just as great of a problem today as they were in 1966, when three students from Des Moines, Iowa, wore black arm bands with peace signs prominently displayed. The arm bands were worn to protest the war in Vietnam, and administrators thought they might instigate violence in the school. The students were suspended when they refused to remove the arm bands.

However, the students took the case to court. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, noting that under the First Amendment, students have the right to express their opinions as long as they do so "without materially and substantially interfering with requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and without colliding with the rights of others," according to the Tinker v. Des Moines School District case.

When students go to school, they do not leave their constitutional rights outside of the classroom. Teachers, professors and other administrators in the school systems should encourage thinking outside the box instead of punishing students for new, innovative ways of expressing themselves. That's not to say that a dress code should not be instituted at all, but removing students' rights is not the solution.

In 1999, a student from Virginia, Edward Shinkle, wore his mother's skirt to school, violating the gender-based dress code at his high school. He was ordered to go home and change into "traditional male attire," then come back to school. The Libertarian Rock Web page notes that "school officials were more worried about social change than about one student in a skirt."

Even Shinkle's mother, Leslie Kennedy, said the issue is more about the school's power than the disruption.

"[The administration] should have ignored it, and he would have never done it again," Kennedy said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is one organization that is standing up for students and helping fight the battle for self-expression.

"[The] ACLU opposes dress codes-we believe students have a right of free expression, a part of which is expressing their individuality through the clothes they wear," Michael Steinberg of the ACLU said in an article posted on "And parents can control the clothing children wear, but it should not be a matter that the state dictates."

More recently, in 2005, Robert Blau challenged the U.S. District Court decision, restricting his daughter Amanda's dress code at school. Not only did the dress code violate Amanda's right of freedom of expression, but it also violated her "right to wear clothing of her choice" and "his right to control his daughter's dress," Blau said.

The school's objective was to establish the new dress code and "create unity, strengthen school spirit, reduce disruptions, enhance school safety, improve the learning environment and bridge socio-economic gaps," according to the Fort Thomas School Web site.

The court ruled that Amanda still had other ways of expressing herself, and the case was dismissed.

Other students dress not only to express themselves politically, but also their religious beliefs. Such is the case with 12-year-old Nashala Hearn, who wore a hijab, a head scarf worn by Muslim women, to school and refused to remove it. As part of her Islamic culture, all women are required to be covered from head to toe. This was an infringement upon her religious practices and freedom of expression and violated the First Amendment, but still she was punished with an eight-day suspension.

Student journalist Sara Foley makes a strong point.

"If Hearn's scarf was unfit for school grounds, then, in the same respect, any cross necklace or T-shirt with a Bible verse on it should be as well," Foley said.

All four cases create a strong argument for violations against the First Amendment, whether or not the courts ruled in their favor. As Americans, these are rights we have at any age and should not be limited by school systems. If a dress code is to be enforced, it should not violate the First Amendment. It must be gender neutral, leave students to freely express themselves and tolerate all or no religious garments.

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