October 15, 2007

LITTLE ROCK - In October 2006 the ACLU of Arkansas filed suit
on behalf of students who the ACLU asserted were disciplined for wearing black
armbands to protest the student apparel policy and its enforcement.  The school
claimed the students were suspended for violating the policy and not for
expressing their disapproval of it.  In an order issued on October 20, 2006, the
Court found that the WCSD had violated the students' First Amendment rights when
they suspended the students for wearing the armbands and issued a temporary
order overturning the punishment the students received.  At a hearing the week
of September 10, 2007, the school district finally admitted that it did punish
the students for protesting the school policy.

The ACLU lawsuit also contained a complaint against the
student apparel policy itself and its  arbitrary and capricious enforcement, and
against the literature distribution policy, which required school
administrationt to pre-review and approve of all student literature with no
guidelines for approval or non-approval.  The court held that the student
apparel policy did not violate the First Amendment, because the intent of the
school board in implementing the policy was not to prohibit speech, but it found
that the literature policy was "probably unconstitutional."

A federal judge issued a written
decision today in the case filed by the ACLU of Arkansas against the Watson
Chapel school district for violating students’ free speech rights by suspending
students for wearing black wristbands in opposition to the school uniform
policy. Students planned to wear black wristbands to school Friday, October 6th
to silently protest the policy. When school officials discovered the plan, they
announced that students wearing the wristbands would be disciplined. Such
punishment included suspension, which would prohibit the students from taking
exams. Some students wore the wristbands anyway and were disciplined by the

The ACLU requested that the
Court stop the district from enforcing the discipline given the student
plaintiffs and prohibit the district from disciplining the students for wearing
armbands in the future. A hearing on that motion was held in the Federal
District Court in Pine Bluff on Thursday, October 19.

In his order, Judge Leon Holmes said, “The testimony of the
assistant principal of the high school and the principal of the junior high
school leaves the distinct impression that the students were disciplined because
the black armbands signified a protest." He further stated that "the student
plaintiffs would suffer harm not only to their First Amendment rights, but also
potential exposure to progressive discipline should an injunction not be
granted." Judge Holmes noted that the students’ wearing of the bands did not
violate the uniform policy, and that they were similar to other bands worn by
students. Testimony at the hearing showed that the school sold black wristbands
with the words “Watson Chapel” printed on them, and students were not
disciplined for wearing those bands.

"Of course school officials do not like speech that opposes
their conduct, but officials in this country cannot permit the speech they like
and prohibit speech they do not like," said staff attorney Holly Dickson. "The
students were brave to express themselves in light of the District’s clear
hostility to their message, and their right to do so is protected by the First

School officials argued
that the students were not punished because of the message their armbands
conveyed, but because the wearing of the armbands was a violation of the uniform
policy, under the provision that says, "Any attempt to defeat the uniformity
intended by this policy is prohibited." However, an assistant principal for the
junior high school testified that the difference between the black armbands and
the other bands students wore was that the black bands were “a direct protest
against the dress code policy

Holmes noted in the order issued Friday, October 20, that the students had made
a sufficient showing of a likelihood of success on the merits of their First
Amendment claim to warrant issuance of the preliminary injunction. The Judge
ruled that the situation was “markedly similar” to the landmark students’ free
speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District where the
U.S. Supreme Court held that students engaging in symbolic speech and political
expression by wearing armbands to protest the Vietnam War were protected under
the first amendment to the United States Constitution.