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Dress Code Protest Fails to Sway Federal Judge

SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) - Two students lost a post-trial motion to challenge the constitutionality of their school district's dress code after a jury tossed the case.

Caterina Anna Scicchitano and Don Filippo Scicchitano filed suit in February for penalties they faced at the Mount Carmel Area School District because of their protest against a new dress code the district adopted in 2000.

It called for khaki slacks and golf shirts of specified colors for boys, while girls had to abide by certain skirt lengths. The code also proscribed baggy pants and various logos.

The Scicchitanos say they began wearing nonconforming clothes that year, when Caterina was in fifth grade and Don was in sixth grade. Caterina ultimately withdrew from the school, and her brother was expelled in two consecutive years.

They had decided to "exercise their constitutional right to protest the dress code because they felt the dress code limited their ability to express their individuality," U.S. District Judge James Munley explained in a ruling last week. "The plaintiffs also objected to the dress code because it prohibited some liturgical colors of religious importance to them. The parties came to an agreement that permitted plaintiffs to wear logos protesting the dress code, so long as the clothing otherwise complied with the code."

The three-day trial was called to distinguish whether the school district had disciplined the Scicchitanos for dress code violations or as retaliation for their protest of the code.

Various school officials received qualified immunity since the court failed to find "a clearly established constitutional right at the time of the actions in question."

After the jury determined the school district had not infringed on the Scicchitanos' free-speech rights, the plaintiffs filed post-trial motion.

Munley ruled, however, that the First Amendment protected the students only when they wore approved clothing with protest logos. Since the school took disciplinary action only when the students wore exceeded that limitation, they do not have a case, he explained.

The judge also said that the school officials had properly received immunity from the case.

Lacking evidence that the Scicchitanos were not singled out for protesting the dress code, Munley also agreed that the district treated all students violating the dress code equally.

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