Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On Freedom of Speech in Schools

Steve piqued my curiosity with his question regarding what would happen if a student took the "guaging and grillz" dress code to court. He received philosophy and recollection at first, but I decided to do a bit of quick research, and this is what I came up with.

First, some background:

Court cases have established that students are entitled to freedom of speech, so long as it doesn't "materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school." Further, there is no right to "vulgar, lewd, obscene, and plainly offensive speech." School newspapers, speeches, and flyers are also at the discretion of teachers regarding censorship. The short answer: So long as a school can prove that speech would be even remotely disruptive to the learning of others, it's out. This can include potential violence (such as gang related paraphernalia) or substances illegal to students of that age group.

There seems to be no consensus on speech specifically related to one's own body. Some cases have allowed dress codes banning earrings to be upheld on the basis of gang-related fashions. There are cases which prohibit schools from regulating hair length, but regulation of hair color seems to be acceptable still in some places, though not others.

Sources: Ohio General Assembly, ACLU of North Carolina, First Amendment Center.

With that in mind, Steve's question was, "What if somebody took that school district in Texas to court?"

My crystal ball is broken, and my Magic 8-Ball keeps telling me to ask again later, but I'm guessing that the court would rule in favor of the school district.

I base this on several different factors. The school could argue for the disruptive nature of the fads, as many students will find the self-mutilation of "gauging" to be a bit nauseating, and because of the speech difficulties that "grillz" often cause.

The school could also make some argument towards gang paraphernalia with both of these, though a connection may be hard to establish (and I'm not aware of any myself).

Also, with precedent in mind, if a school is able to regulate hair color, then it seems likely that it can regulate other forms of body modification, which "gauging" would certainly fall under.

I maintain my argument that the law regulates body modification for minors in certain circumstances, though I'm not certain that would play into any judicial ruling.

That's my answer. Hopefully, somebody beside Steve was curious.


-Murphy said...

It probably falls under general dress code rules (non-uniform) which have been pretty well upheld, if I recall correctly. The problem with calling something a gang symbol is that you can do that with literally everything. "He's wearing white sneakers! Gang sign!" or "He's wearing a goatee! That means he kills people!"

Steve the Troll said...

Why does it seem that these debates only arise in K-12 school districts and not public universities? This would be a non-issue if we were talking about UT-Austin. Why the inconsistency?

Hal said...

I don't think it's an inconsistency at all. There are different rules for adults and for minors. Why is that unacceptable?

meera said...

i think i have issue with your take on guaging. how is it any more "nauseating" or any less permanent a form of "self-mutilation" than standard ear piercing. most schools allow that (i know you have pointed out that a few don't - but most don't ban piercings, just earrings...and if you have to leave the earrings in because you just got the piercing, they will allow you to bandage the bottom of your ears), and very few people consider it to be self-mutilation. just in case one wants to point out the dangers of guaging - if cared for improperly, standard pierced ears are VERY prone to infection and other bad gross things.

so why standard ear piercing, but not guaging? yes, the holes are bigger - and some are irreversible, but you can say the same about ear piercings. i have a standard guage ear piercing - tiny little holes that most people have. if i leave them without earrings for the next 20 years, they will not close up. yet, for some reason, that is more commonly accepted by society. why?

now, if you feel that ear piercing is self mutilation as well, then i apologize in advance for attacking your lack of consistency :).

Hal said...

I suppose I can't justify my description of gauging as "nauseating" other than "just because."

I suppose it's back to a "community standards" sort of thing. In parts of Africa, where customs can include putting rings on the neck to stretch it out or putting plates in your lower lip to stretch that out, people probably wouldn't care about such a thing. You walk into a midwest high school with a lip plate in? People are going to look at you funny.

I would consider ear-piercing to be a "standard" practice, in that it's widely practiced in the US. While gauging may be gaining popularity, it's still uncommon enough that most students, I'm assuming, will see it and not thing highly of it. Smaller gauges might go unnoticed, but I'm assuming the school wouldn't step in until it became, as I put it, nauseating. Such as that fellow I saw at Wal-Mart.

I suppose it might seem inconsistent then, that this comes off as a "some forms of mutilation are better than others" kind of argument. But I can't defend that with anything other than personal preference and a reference to "community standards" and so forth. "The devil you know," as the saying goes.

Hal said...

Also, I like to write "I suppose" a lot.

I suppose I'm just a bad writer.

Jen said...

I'm just waiting for the day when some smart-ass gang decides to use school uniform type clothes as their symbol. The confusion will be magnificent!