Superintendent Thomas J. Collins
Waxahachie Independent School District
1000 Highway 77 North
Waxahachie, TX 75165
Members of the Board of Trustees
WISD Administration Building
411 N. Gibson St
Waxahachie, TX 75165
October 9, 2007
Dear Superintendent Collins and Members of the Board of Trustees,
We are concerned about the recent decision to send Pete Palmer home from Waxahachie High School because he was wearing a t-shirt with a political message. We understand that your school currently has a policy prohibiting “T-shirts, other than WISD clubs, organizations, sports, or spirit t-shirts, college or university t-shirts or solid-colored t-shirts.”
In our view, this policy as applied to Mr. Palmer denies students their basic First Amendment rights. In the landmark case Tinker v. DesMoines, the Supreme Court affirmed that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate". They have every right to express their political opinions as long as they do not interfere with the educational function of the school or substantially disrupt school activities. This principle has recognized by many courts, see, e.g. Guiles v. Marineau (2d Cir. 2006), and was recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Morse v. Frederick.
There is no evidence that Pete Palmer’s decision to wear a t-shirt expressing support for a current political candidate would provoke any kind of significant disruption. Indeed, by expressing his political point of view, he was being an active citizen engaging in the democratic process. The fact that he was disciplined for this kind of expression not only raises constitutional issues, but is contrary to the mission of Waxahachie High School to “develop through a cooperative effort with home and community, well educated, responsible citizens who can excel in a complex world.” Instead, this decision discourages students from becoming active citizens and teaches them the best way to deal with difficult speech is to avoid it.
As one federal judge expressed it, "The schoolroom prepares children for citizenship, and the proper exercise of the First Amendment is a hallmark of citizenship in our country."(Chandler v. McMinnville School Dist., 978 F.2d 524 (9th Cir. 1992)) Education in a democratic society requires developing citizens who can adapt to changing times, understand important social issues, and effectively judge the performance of public officials. In fulfilling their responsibilities, public schools must not only provide students with knowledge of many subject areas and training in essential skills, but must also educate students on core American values such as fairness, equality, justice, respect for others, and the right to dissent.
We urge you to revise your dress code policy and use this as an opportunity to educate your students about our country’s most fundamental principles: free speech and the obligations of participatory democracy.