What not to wear, how administration decides

Morgan Koehler, Editor

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While often misattributed to the French philosopher Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall created this phrase in “The Friends of Voltaire” to illustrate his beliefs and the quote is often seen as an accurate description of the United States’ principle of freedom of speech. This freedom of speech extends to every part of our lives, including controversial subjects, which can take the form of many different things. Our writing, our art, even our clothing are all expressions of free speech.

   However, freedom of speech is not a black and white subject. Clothing in schools is a good example of this. In order for the school to censor something, they have to provide evidence of a “material and substantial disruption,” as according to the Tinker standard, created in the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case.

   Where this becomes a gray area is that the law doesn’t define what a substantial disruption is, and so it is on a case-by-case basis.

   D.C. Everest High School Principal Michael Raether provided some insight into this subject.

   When a student violates the dress code, Mr. Raether will bring them into his office and ask them to change into something else. Staff is instructed to send out students who violate the written dress code, and they will usually contact Mr. Bohm or Mr. Raether to talk to the students.

   “Generally, if we have a clothing issue, we ask them to remove it or change their clothing. We try to talk to them privately. We don’t want them to feel like they’re being attacked, and we try to be reasonable,” Mr. Raether said.

    Students are usually agreeable and address the problem.

   “We have a great group of kids, and engaging in conversation with them is easy. They’re easy to work with, and they’re nice kids,” Mr. Raether said.

   However, if the school wanted to censor someone for wearing something not covered by the school policy, the school needs to have significant evidence that it caused or could cause a “material or substantial disruption.”

   Mr. Raether said, “We make a judgement call, as the administration, if the clothing is causing or could cause, based on prior experience, a material and substantial disruption. In the case of clothing, if it’s not explicitly written in the handbook, we have to have documented disruptions.”

   Raether said that if they, as a school, are going to try and limit the students’ freedom of speech, they must have all the evidence they can gather to justify it. When considering the legal consequences and what they are trying to censor, they have to keep in mind the balance between the students’ freedom of speech versus the school order. If a student expressing their freedom of speech can upset order in the school, censoring it is justifiable under certain circumstances. If a student isn’t causing or is likely to cause a disruption, the staff do not have the legal authority to try and censor them.

   This can cause a lot of confusion when it comes to certain things that may be offensive or controversial. Say someone wears a shirt that has something controversial written on it, and someone is distraught by it. Is one student crying in the corner enough to be considered a substantial disruption? Things like this are a case-by-case basis, and are rarely, if ever, clear-cut.

   However, if the school policy was revised to prohibit things like what was written on that student’s shirt, then the school administration can censor it and it would not be a First Amendment issue.

   While people may not agree with what others wear or say, they do not have the right to try and censor it unless it causes or could cause a major problem, in the case of schools. This applies in nearly every instance of freedom of speech.