The Freedom To Dress

For most students, what you wear equates to how you are perceived. Your sense of fashion is what defines you, a sort of avatar that represents what type of person you are. For one high school girl, however, it meant a trip to the principal’s office and possible suspension.

Earlier this month, Sophomore Haley Bullwinkle of Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills was ordered by school administrators to remove her t-shirt, which featured a buck, an American flag, and a silhouette of a hunter. According to her father, the shirt was a gift from the National Rifle Association after he became an active card-holder. Haley Bullwinkle claims that the school said her shirt “promoted gun violence.”

Does the school have the right to force a student to remove attire that it deems unacceptable? It is important to first take a look at what public schools in California are and are not allowed to do.  Schools have the right to create and implement a dress code. The goal of a public school is to create a safe and effective environment for learning and teaching. If a student’s dress endangers said goal (or, at the very least, interferes with it), the school has the authority to order the student to change his or her clothes.

However, this rule is very vague and leaves too much room for interpretation. For example, what is considered to be an “endangerment” to the learning environment?

Some might claim that anything that portrays religious or political symbols play a part in such “endangerment,” but the United States Supreme Court has already ruled such restrictions to be unconstitutional because students, like all citizens of the United States, are protected under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Such was the case in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a landmark court case where the Supreme Court reversed an Iowa high school’s decision to ban anti-war armbands that were being worn by the students. The decision was based on the fact that it did not pose a direct threat to school discipline or the rights of others.

So as a general rule of thumb, a public school cannot suspend or force a student to change his or her clothes unless there is an immediate threat (as in a physical threat, i.e. a shooting or violence) to the school or the other students. But even that rule is hard to interpret; some schools claim “gang-related apparel” to be a threat to the safety of the students, while others do not see it as a direct threat.

Does the school have the authority to force Bullwinkle to change her shirt? Possibly yes, but only if it serves as a direct threat to the school.

Does Bullwinkle’s shirt pose such a threat? While many people (I included) often question the NRA’s motives and beliefs, the NRA itself does not propagandize gun violence, and most certainly does not serve as a threat toward the school. In this case, it is easy to say that the school has no right to order Bullwinkle to change her clothing just because it is NRA paraphernalia. And it seems that the school agrees, too; Canyon High School principal Kimberly Fricker later issued an apology to Bullwinkle’s family stating that she deeply regretted the actions of the school.

It is resolved cases like this one that restores my faith in our country, one that prides itself in its freedom. But this is just one of many similar situations that occur throughout our country every year, and while some are called out and quickly resolved (as in Bullwinkle’s case), others are, unfortunately, left ignored and unnoticed. If something like this ever happens to you, do not be afraid to speak up as Bullwinkle did; as a citizen of the United States, you have the right to say whatever you want, so long as it does not impede upon the rights of others.

 

Bryce Tham is a first-year computer science major. He can be reached at btham@uci.edu.