By Megan Khatchadourian, Assistant to the Director

If you were like me, your most favorite part of back to school was the annual trip to the office supply store for brand spanking new notebooks, pencils, markers and the only measurement of coolness back in my day – a new Trapper Keeper (preferably with a Lisa Frank design.) 

If school supplies weren’t your thing, then it probably was that very special trip to purchase those all important wardrobe additions dubbed as “back to school clothes.” You know, those clothes and shoes that were so special you had to wait the excruciating 2-3 weeks until school started before you were allowed to don them.  What I bet you didn’t realize was even at that young age, you were given the opportunity to exert your First Amendment right to express yourself – so long as your expression does not disrupt the learning environment – a right all students, especially in public schools shouldn’t forget they have.

What happens when your “back to school” outfit choices have to consist of a maroon or white polo shirt paired with khaki or navy pants with certain regulated text for example?  Those outfit combos sound mighty close to a uniform, and probably mean you go to a private school.   Not necessarily.  A growing number of public schools are beginning to implement mandatory uniform policies for their students.  Now, you could be a parent who thinks, “no arguing over inappropriate outfits before I’ve finished my morning coffee – sign us up!” Or you could be an administrator who believes that uniforms level the playing field and reduce the number of “distractions” that happen when you give students the ability to express themselves.  Then there are those who believe that students shouldn’t give up their freedom of expression, and that uniforms and to some extent dress code policies in general infringe upon that very right. 

Not only do uniforms infringe on that very important right to self expression (one of the few rights students don’t lose when they walk through the doors of school), but the arguments in favor of uniforms do nothing solidify their benefit to a student’s education.  There have been several cases over the course of history in which the courts have sided with the students and upheld their right to freely express themselves politically and socially.

A United State’s Supreme Court case from the 1970’s Tinker v. DesMoines set the standard that students have a constitutional right to wear clothing with messaging that is political.  More closer to home in 1972, the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education held in the Gardner v. Cumberland School Committee case that school districts were limited to regulating the dress of pupils to situations where “it presents a clear and present danger to the student’s health and safety, causes an interference with school work, or creates a classroom or school disorder.” 

In terms of Rhode Island-based uniform cases, we have argued on behalf of several parents of children in the Woonsocket School District when it was announced that they would begin implementing a uniform policy.  Arguing along the same principles as mentioned above we also noted that a mandatory uniform policy in a public school setting can also amount to a “de facto educational fee” as parents would be forced to buy specific clothing for the school setting.  The lawsuit was eventually deemed moot, as the Woonsocket School Department did not move forward in fully enforcing the policy. 

While there may be a certain place in the world where uniforms are beneficial--military settings, prison settings--it is our belief that they provide no educational benefit, especially in the public school setting and therefore policies that try and mandate them should continue to be challenged. 

To learn more about your dress code rights at school click here.  Want to keep up to date on any new dress code or uniform work the RI ACLU is doing visit our Students' Right page and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.