ST. LOUIS (CN) – Missouri school officials violated students’ free-speech rights by punishing them for wearing black arm bands to protest the school’s uniform dress code, the 8th Circuit ruled.
In 2006, a group of students at Watson Chapel Junior High wore the armbands on their wrists, forearms or biceps, despite the school’s prohibition on “any attempt to defeat the uniformity” intended by the dress code.
Each student was disciplined for wearing the armbands, though they claim the school uniform policy allows them to wear jewelry and wristbands, so long as they do not overlap any part of the uniform.
The district court ruled for the students, but handed the question of damages to a jury. Jurors found that the plaintiffs had proven neither compensatory nor punitive damages and awarded them nothing.
The 8th Circuit found the case nearly identical to the 1969 case in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld students’ right to wear black armbands to show their support for a truce in Vietnam.
Judge Smith rejected school officials’ attempt to distinguish the cases. “Whether student speech protests national foreign policy or local school board policy is not constitutionally significant,” Smith wrote.
The appellate judges also upheld the district court’s decision to amend the jury verdict to award nominal damages, to permanently enjoin the school from punishing students for wearing similar armbands, and to award the plaintiffs more than $45,000 in attorney fees and costs.