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ACLU Seeks Change in Unconstitutional Coventry School Dress Code Used to Ban a Patriotic Hat

Posted: June 18, 2010|Category: Free Speech Category: Students' Rights

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In a letter faxed today to Coventry School District Superintendent Kenneth DiPietro, the Rhode Island ACLU called for an immediate revision to the school’s dress code policy, which apparently bans students from displaying any images of weapons. Pointing to this week’s highly-publicized incident when eight year old student David Morales was barred from wearing a patriotic hat because it included toy soldiers carrying guns, the ACLU called the dress code clearly unconstitutional. The RI ACLU letter, from executive director Steven Brown, noted:

"The ACLU agrees with those who have condemned this decision, which was based on an apparently inflexible ‘zero tolerance’ policy regarding weapons that, as this incident demonstrates, defies all common sense. However, there is another aspect to this dispute that has not been discussed, and that is the significant constitutional problem with the school’s decision to ban David from wearing his hat to school. … It is incumbent upon the school district to revise its dress code policy, to the extent it bans apparel like that worn by David, in order to ensure that a similar incident like this does not reoccur.

“It was over forty years ago, in the seminal student rights’ case of Tinker v. Des Moines, that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that public school students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’ Although school officials maintain some authority in this area, there are clear limits. The decision to ban a hat that was clearly non-violent and non-threatening in any way, and whose patriotic purpose was easily discernible, is simply not within those limits and cannot withstand even minimal scrutiny.”

In that regard, the ACLU letter pointed to federal court cases striking down such broad bans, including one that overturned the discipline of a student for wearing a T-shirt demonstrating support for the United States Marines that included a depiction of a rifle. The letter noted that Coventry’s dress code would presumably prevent a student from wearing a shirt with a picture of Rhode Island’s Independent Man, since he is depicted holding a spear.

“This incident,” the letter concluded, “vividly demonstrates the bankruptcy of ‘zero tolerance’ policies, which promote rhetoric over reality, simplicity over wisdom, and inflexibility over the exercise of good judgment and common sense. . . We urge you and other school officials to immediately reexamine [the dress code] policy in order to avoid any other violations of students’ constitutional rights.”

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