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Students’ Rights and Responsibilities

Amanda M. Burnside

College of Southern Nevada EDU 210

September 28th, 2019

Does a school have to right to suspend a student for what he believes is his right to self-

expression? At a large high-school in the northeastern United States a policy was implemented at
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the school prohibiting the student from wearing gang symbols. This included jewelry, emblems,

earring, and athletic caps. The school put this policy into place because of the prevalent gang

activities they were experiencing at the high-school. A student, Bill Foster, wore an earring to

school as a form of self-expression and was suspended. Bill was not involved in any gang

activity and only wore the earring as he believed it was attractive to young ladies. Did his

suspension violate his freedom of expression rights?

A landmark case that supports Foster’s right to express himself by wearing an earring is

Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969). In this case students were suspended from school

for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The principle of the Des Moines schools

had gotten word of the plan to wear the armbands and adopted the policy that students wearing

them would be asked to remove them, if refused they would be suspended. In order for school

officials to justify a policy prohibiting a certain expression of opinion they would have to show

that it is not based of the desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that comes with an

unpopular viewpoint. In the Tinker case the court did not find that the school authorities had

reason to believe that the wearing of the armbands would interfere with the work of the school or

the rights of the other students. The court found that the students in this case did have right to

free speech. Unless a school could prove that the speech would disrupt school activities, that

“speech” is allowed. Based off the standard set be Tinker v Des Moines School District (1969)

the school in Bill Foster’s case would have to prove that him wearing and earing to school was in

some way disruptive to school activities.

Another comparable case is Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District (1997).

In this case two students filed suit claiming that their First Amendment rights had been violates
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when the District banned them from wearing rosaries outside of their clothing. The school was

stating the rosaries were considered “gang-related” apparel. The school in this case argued that

although they knew the student wore the rosaries only to communicate their Catholic faith, that

observers would not understand that and assume the students to have some relation to a gang.

Going off the Tinker standard the court decided that the District had to show that the students

religious speech caused a disruption to the school activities. The students in this case had worn

their rosaries outside of their shirts for several weeks before being told they would no longer we

allowed to. In those weeks the district could not provide the court with any evidence that the act

of wearing the rosaries outside of their shirts had caused any disruption to school activities. The

courts final ruling was that the District had violated the student’s First Amendment rights by

prohibiting them from wearing rosaries. In Bill Foster’s case the school also recognizes that he

has no affiliation with a gang. He wore an earring only as a form of self-expression.

In the case Canady w. Bozier Parish School Board (2001) the courts sided with the

district. The Bozier Parish School Board implemented a policy that required all students to wear

uniforms. They believed that this policy would reduce behavioral issues and help to improve test

scores. Several parents did not agree and felt that this policy violated their children’s First

Amendment rights to free speech. The court found that the policy enforcing students to wear

uniforms met all elements of a test to determine if a government regulation was constitutional.

The goal of the school having a policy on uniforms was not the suppression of speech. They

found that students were able to express their views through other mediums even though they

were required to wear a uniform. Although the court upheld the school districts right to enforce a

uniform policy they still felt that an individuals attire choice can still fall under rights protected
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by the First Amendment. This could mean that although a school may have a right to enforce a

uniform policy, they do not have the right to forbid a student from wearing jewelry as a form of

self-expression, like in Bill Foster’s case.

The case Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education (2000) also ended in a decision

which favored the school. High School Administrators told student, Nicholas Boroff, that he was

not allowed to wear Marilyn Manson t-shirts. At the time the student wore the shirt to school the

High School had a policy in place stating that “clothing with offensive illustrations, drug,

alcohol, or tobacco slogans. Are not acceptable.” The principal’s aide told Boroff that the shirt he

had on fell into the category of offensive and he was given the option to turn it inside out, change

or leave school which he would then be considered truant. Boroff decided to leave school that

day and returned the next day again wearing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt. Again, he was told by the

administration that the school violated policy and could not wear it to school. After a meeting

with the school principle, Boroff’s mother filed a lawsuit stating the school had violated her

son’s First Amendment rights by telling him he could not wear a Marilyn Manson t-shirt to

school. It was decided that the school did not act in an unreasonable manner in prohibiting the

student from wearing these t-shirts and it was in line with their dress code policy. The judges in

this case believe that all t-shirts were banned in the same way and for the same reasons that

violated the dress code; they were vulgar, offensive, and contrary to the educational mission of

the school. This case is like Bill Foster’s in that the school is stating that the earring is a violation

of their dress code policy. The difference between the two is that in Bill’s case the dress code is

prohibiting “gang symbols” and is not very specific. Bill is not involved in gang activity and that

is a fact the school is aware of.


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I can see where the court could go either way when coming to a decision in Bill Foster’s

case. I feel that because the school is aware that Bill is not involved in any gang activity and only

wears the earing to express himself and because he feels young ladies find it attractive that the

courts would have to rule in Foster’s favor. The standard set by Tinker v. Des Moines School

District (1969) states that unless the “speech” is disruptive or infringing on the rights of other

students then to prohibit it would be to violate the rights of the student. Bill Foster was not being

disruptive or causing any problems that were contrary to the educational mission of the school,

so I do not believe it was ok for the school to suspend him. Unless the high school Bill attends

can directly link an earring to inciting gang violence, I believe that the court would rule in favor

of Foster’s claim. On the other side of the argument the school would be in the right if they can

prove that it is a violation of their dress code policy. In Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of

Education (2000) the court ruled in favor of the school because the school was able to prove that

the Marilyn Manson t-shirts the student was wearing was in violation of their dress code. The

policy at Bill Foster’s school I believe is to vague to justify his suspension based only on the

claim that his earing could be considered gang related apparel.


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References

Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education 220 F. 3d 465 (6th Cir. 2000)

Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board, 240 F. 3d 437 (5th Cir.2001)

Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District 976 F. Supp. 659 (1997)

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District 393 U.S. 503,506 (1969)