As students head back to school this year school administrators are once again embroiled school dress code fiascos. From shorts that are way too short to pierced lips, today’s administrators are never far away from the latest fashion trend. It stands to reason that the most reasonable fashion choice for any student is the good ol’ t-shirt. Today’s public school students rely often rely on t-shirts as a staple of a modern, yet comfortable wardrobe choice.
A case handed down this past spring by the 4th Circuit US Court of Appeals could certainly be filed away in your First Amendment playbook as a typical dress code incident where reasonable school policies prevailed over an unreasonably dressed teenager, but a closer look at this case reveals just how time consuming even the simplest wardrobe infraction can become.
Candice Hardwick should indeed go down in the books as a student who was not only willing to challenge a school dress code policy, but one, who along with her parents, was relentless in doing so for four complete academic years. Hardwick, a middle school and high school student during the incidents that spawned the litigation, wore not one or two troublesome t-shirts, but ended up with a stockpile of at least fourteen controversial t-shirts. Most of the t-shirts bore the Confederate flag in some form and pursuant to past dress code judicial rulings favorable to school administrators in school districts where racial discord maintains a presence, these t-shirts were unacceptable for this public school setting. A portion of the shirts were protest shirts focused on the school administration. The dress code itself was standard fare for most schools and attempts by the parents to convince the school board to revise the dress code policy were unsuccessful.
A federal district judge in Indiana has ruled that school administrators may prohibit “I ♥ Boobies” breast-cancer awareness bracelets as lewd or vulgar student speech.
Judge Joseph S. Van Bokkelen of Hammond, Ind., considered and rejected the reasoning of the full federal appeals court in Philadelphia, which ruled earlier this month that the bracelets could not be barred because they comment on a social issue and are not “plainly lewd.”
“Clearly, the breast cancer awareness message does not eliminate the vulgar meaning behind ‘I ♥ Boobies’,” Van Bokkelen said in his Aug. 20 opinion in J.A. v. Fort Wayne Community Schools.
The Fort Wayne school district barred the bracelets, which are produced by the Keep A Breast Foundation of Carlsbad, Calif., after a male high school student in 2010 was wearing one when he harassed a female student by repeating the phrase “I love boobies” around her. District officials, which had also confiscated a bracelet that said, “Save the boobs,” concluded that such messages were offensive to women and inappropriate for school regardless of their breast cancer awareness theme.
The ban was challenged on First Amendment grounds by a female student identified as K.A., who is entering her senior year at North Side High School in Fort Wayne.
The bracelets have caused controversy in several schools around the country. In an Aug. 5 decision in B.H. v. Easton Area School District, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that the bracelets could not be categorically barred as lewd under U.S. Supreme Court precedents on student speech.