Tinker v Des Moines

I’m currently (well, as of yesterday) on the brink of a sort of fizzle with my school principal over some issues. Was wondering if some of our lawyer Dopers could maybe help me out.

As I understand it, the Tinker vs. Des Moines ruling stated that public schools may not limit students’ freedom of expression (including clothing, I believe), unless the expression in question causes sufficient disruption to the learning process.

My school’s dress code states that, among other things, “clothing, patches, etc., that contain vulgarity, reference to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, satanism, or instigative language” are not permitted. First question: Is there any legal precedent prohibiting excessively broad restrictions on clothing? I find the phrase “instigative language” somewhat…sweeping. That could very easily apply to my ‘read a banned book’ T-shirt (which actually has been ‘commented on’ by an assistant principal before) or my ‘buck fush’ shirt. It could even probably apply to my IBScrewed shirt. This concerns me. Is the school allowed to use such broad terms?

Second question: Also in our school handbook: “students who wish not to recite the pledge of allegiance must stand quietly at attention.” I believe (working on finding a cite right now) that NJ state law says otherwise. If I were to elect not to stand (which is currently my case - I stay seated for my own reasons), and get in trouble for it, would that not be a violation of the precedent set by Tinker vs Des Moines? Is me staying seated not considered a non-disruptive form of expression?

Thanks, all.

Dress codes include generalities like “instigative language” so that they have some flexibility to deal with unexpected stuff. People (especially kids) being what they are, you wind up with situations where some jackass is demanding to know where in the dress code it prohibits shirts that say “Kill all the teachers and eat their heads.” Instead of having to make five hundred specific rules after the fact, they make one rule that covers pretty much anything that might come up. It’s a lot easier that way, trust me.

What causes a ruckus at one school might not raise an eyebrow at another school, and it’s hard to predict what will stir things up sometimes. That’s why they have the disruption clause in most dress codes.

And yes, broad terms like that are perfectly okay. The “Buck Fush” shirt would get the ax at every public school I’ve ever attended, partly because it rides the profanity line pretty hard, partly because the sentiment would start a shitstorm among the other students. There have been enough borderline cases like that in my mother’s school district that they amended the dress code to exclude any shirt with any writing or logos on it, and they’re well within the law to do so.

Despite Tinker v. Des Moines, the trend in more recent times has been to give more discretion to school authorities in regulating student dress even though this may limit the students’ speech to some extent.

It may be true that the school would be well within the law to prevent all writing on clothing, but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a problem if they allowed some writing and not others. You get into real sticky territory when the rationale for prohibiting a certain message is that the other students would react badly to it. You can see the problem if one student is allowed to wear clothing that says, “Vote Bush 2004” while another is suspended for wearing something that says “Bush sucks” (or vice versa).

Free speech within the context of public schools raises difficult constitutional issues. I don’t know the latest law in the area and I could see courts ruling either way.