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Students Rights -- Dress Codes


1. Can the school tell me what I can or can’t wear?

People express themselves through their dress just as they do through their speech. So, the First Amendment should protect student dress. However, school officials in many states claim dress codes are necessary to prevent gang activity, promote safety, and prevent distraction and disruption in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has not heard a case involving a challenge to a public school dress code or uniform policy.

Lower courts have generally sided with schools and supported the constitutionality of dress codes. Some scholars believe the Supreme Court would be unlikely to overturn a school’s dress code unless it felt the code was really unreasonable or discriminatory. In general, federal courts have found schools’ grooming requirements to be reasonable. Whatever dress code a school uses, the code must be written clearly so students know exactly what is or is not permitted.

Vermont school boards have wide discretion in establishing school policies, so dress codes may vary from one school to another. Vermont law requires that any policy adopted by a Vermont school board be written, codified, and made available to the public. And a school board must notify the public of its intent to adopt a new policy at least 10 days before its adoption, so students should be on the lookout for any proposed changes to their school’s dress codes.

Like some other school policies, established school dress codes are subject to constitutional challenges. If students feel their school’s dress code policy violates their rights, they can challenge it. However, there is no assurance that a court will overturn a formal school policy, unless it is unreasonable or discriminatory.

There’s a Vermont case on dress codes -- at least one portion of such codes. The case, Guiles v. Marineau, was brought by the ACLU-VT in 2004. Zachary Guiles, a Williamstown Middle School student, was sent home from school for wearing a T-shirt referring to President George W. Bush's alleged illegal drug use as a young man. He had worn the T-shirt to school for several weeks without incident, but the school took action when a parent complained. The principal cited a portion of the school’s dress code that said student clothing couldn’t contain images of drugs or alcohol, and Zach’s shirt did as part of the shirt’s message. The school won on the federal district court level, but lost on appeal. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals said that the images were part of a political message, and thus deserved protection, despite the school’s dress code. The court was careful to say, however, that it was not ruling that the school’s dress code wasn’t proper in other contexts. You can read more about the Guiles case on the ACLU-VT Web site.


2. Can a school’s dress code keep students from wearing T-shirts that have certain slogans or messages on them?

Generally no, but you may want to look at a previous question/answer in the Freedom of Speech section that discussed if school officials can prevent students from expressing an opinion because they think it is too controversial.

Courts have allowed schools to place limits on certain student speech, and a slogan on a T-shirt is considered speech. So, a pro-drug message (which might be something as simple as a T-shirt with a beer can or marijuana cigarette) might not enjoy constitutional protection. Remember also that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tinker case allows expressive speech or behavior as long as it’s not disruptive or interferes with other students’ rights to learn.

What a school most definitely cannot do, however, is to allow a T-shirt with, say, one message (“Support the war in Afghanistan”) but not allow a T-shirt with a contrary message on the same subject (“Oppose the war in Afghanistan”).


3. Can my school make me wear a school uniform?

Many courts have upheld dress code and uniform policies in public schools as a reasonable way to instill discipline and create a positive educational environment. The courts determined that the policies were not intended to suppress students’ freedom of expression but to further reasonable educational objectives. Schools have to show what those reasonable objectives are, however, and how mandating uniforms will help achieve those objectives. Private schools, of course, are not subject to the same rules as public schools and can impose any uniform standards they want.


4. Can the school say I can’t wear my hair in a certain way or say I can’t have a mustache?

The right to choose a hairstyle is in some ways more important than the right to dress as one likes, because hairstyles are harder to change than clothing. The Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue, and so it’s currently a matter for the lower courts. In general, federal courts have found schools’ grooming requirements to be reasonable. In some states, students can wear their hair any way they want as long as it’s not a safety hazard (for instance, if your hair is very long, you may have to tie it back during a science experiment). Courts in other states allow school hair codes, usually as part of a dress code. As with dress codes, if you think your school’s hair code is unfair, you can challenge it. But you would probably have to demonstrate that the code is unreasonable or discriminatory in order to get it overturned by a court.


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