In 1965, two Des Moines area students were suspended for wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The resulting court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, went all the way to the US Supreme Court where the justice’s ruled 7-2 in favor of the students.
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Court wrote. They held that the speech regulation at issue in Tinker was “based upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression, even by the silent symbol of armbands, of opposition to this Nation’s part in the conflagration in Vietnam.” The Court held that in order for school officials to justify censoring speech, they “must be able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint,” allowing schools to forbid conduct that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” The Court found that the actions of the Tinkers in wearing armbands did not cause disruption and held that their activity represented constitutionally protected symbolic speech.
So, how does this apply to the case of the Granite City School District prohibiting a student from wearing a formal kilt outfit to his prom? Especially, as many would point out, the Supreme Court upheld in the same decision the right of a school district to censor clothing or hair style based upon actual reported incidents of disruption or violence related to clothing or hair style.
Granite City Superintendant said, during the school board meeting that sealed the fate of the kilt in question, that, “we must adhere to our [dress] policy. To do otherwise would be reckless on our part.”
The reason is, according to that specific policy which doesn’t actually define what formal wear is, “to improve the safety of the schools by discouraging gang affiliations, improve the learning environment by reducing distractions to the learning process, bridge socio-economic differences among students, increase student’s self-respect and self-esteem, enhance student security, and enable a cost savings for families.”
Wonder if a Scottish clan qualifies as a gang…
So, we have two court cases. One that says a school cannot ban a student from wearing something because “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression and school authorities must accept.” And the other that allowed the censorship of a Beatles-style haircut that had actually caused disturbances and violence in the past in the school.
The answer, I believe, lies in one exchange reported by an attendee at the school board meeting.
“It came out at the meeting that another student wore a kilt to the school’s prom in 2004, and that another wore one to the school’s homecoming dance. The principal said if that happened, the garments had not been ‘approved’ by school officials.”
We can safely assume that, if the principal was not aware of them being worn, that the wearing of the kilts did not cause any disturbances or violence, thus making this particular case fall under the precedent established in Tinker v. Des Moines.
Granite City should follow the lead of Jackson High School in Jackson, Missouri, and their actions in 2005. When they barred a student from attending a school dance because he was wearing a kilt, the resulting worldwide outcry forced the school to change the policy to allow kilts at future dances.
A little cultural sensitivity goes a long way.