Freedom of expression is more than merely important for tweens and teens finding out who they are in this world; it’s a constitutionally protected right. But schools are responsible for protecting the interests of all their students, and if an article of clothing could offend or upset others, the school has a right to ban it for the good of everyone.
A West Virginia family is angry over what they believe is a school’s unfair censorship of their son’s wardrobe. James Clark and his wife claim their son was expelled from middle school for wearing two necklaces that featured the Confederate flag. The Clarks say their son wore the necklaces without incident all this year up until this point and that he even wore a shirt featuring the Confederate flag to school all last year without getting in trouble.
The school principal, Kim Miller, has declined to discuss specifics to this case but claims the student has not been expelled because of the necklaces. She admits disciplinary action has taken place. The school’s official dress code suggests the necklaces are not allowed in school, as it prohibits “clothing that is sexually suggestive, racially offensive or profane.” While the Clarks admit the Confederate flag is a controversial image with negative associations for many Americans, they insist their son is not a racist and should have been allowed to display the flag on his clothes.
Although many Americans may agree that the only place a Confederate flag should be seen in school is within the pages of a history book, the issue of kids wearing things to school that could upset other students and teachers is a long-standing and complicated one. In 1969, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that teachers and students do have First Amendment rights in school that allow them to express themselves through clothing. However, when the expression of free speech is unsafe or disruptive to the educational process, the school has the right to censor the student.
For example, schools routinely prevent students from wearing wallets with long chains and clothing with pins or spikes because they pose a potential safety hazard (they’re also out of fashion at the moment, so really, the school is doing kids a favor there!).
Even clothing with words that some might consider offensive are fair game to be banned by school, and the students don’t even have to be wearing them in class for the dress code to apply. A high school principal who suspended a student for waving a banner saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” during a school-sanctioned event was found to be in the right, as the school has a compelling reason to protect students from language that promotes illegal drug use.
Part of being a young adult is pressing your limits and discovering how the way you present yourself affects others’ opinions of you. But learning what it means to be an adult also means understanding the important lesson of how your words and actions impact the feelings of others. Shirts with off-color sayings or offensive images probably aren’t leaving store shelves, but it’s our job as parents and the job of school educators to help children learn what’s appropriate to wear in school and what’s not.