Academic journal article Education Next

Strange Bedfellows: Students Find Unexpected Ally in the Christian Right

Academic journal article Education Next

Strange Bedfellows: Students Find Unexpected Ally in the Christian Right

Article excerpt

A recent case out of Texas, Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District, proves that law no less than politics makes for strange bedfellows. It also provides additional evidence that federal courts have grown leery of second-guessing the choices of school districts and administrators.

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In this case, the Liberty Legal Institute (LLI), a Texas-based Christian public-interest firm devoted to protecting religious liberties, provided pro bono representation for a student challenging his suspension for wearing a "John Edwards for President" T-shirt. Previously, LLI had filed an amicus brief supporting the right of a student to unfurl a sign proclaiming "BONG HITS 4 JESUS" in 2007's Morse v. Frederick. A bony is a piece of drug equipment, and John Edwards, even before the revelation of his extramarital activities, had no special appeal to the Christian Right.

Palmer v. Waxahachie started innocently but quickly escalated into a full-blown First Amendment storm. In September 2007, Paul Palmer, a 10th-grade student, wore a T-shirt to school that said simply "San Diego." The district's dress code prohibited T-shirts with printed messages. After school officials informed Palmer of his offense, his parents gave him the John Edwards shirt to substitute for "San Diego." This too fell afoul of district policy.

In response, Palmer sued in federal court, asking for preliminary and permanent injunctions along with damages and attorney fees. He claimed that Supreme Court doctrine allowed student speech to be restricted only if it would cause a substantial disruption, was indecent, was school-sponsored (in a school newspaper, for example), or promoted illegal drug use.

At an initial hearing, the district informed the judge that it had changed its dress code, which prompted the court to dismiss Palmer's claim without prejudice. The new code was more comprehensive in its restrictions, forbidding polo shirts with messages, shirts with logos of professional sports teams, and clothing with university logos and messages. The revised code did allow shirts with logos smaller than two inches by two inches. Students could also wear clothing promoting school spirit or school-sanctioned clubs and teams. Also permitted were bumper stickers (even attached to clothing), political pins and buttons, and wristbands. …

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