Court preliminarily enjoins school’s dress code

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Newsom v. Albemarle County School Board, 354 F.3d 249 (4th Cir. 2003)

The 2002–2003 student/parent handbook for the Jack Jouett Middle School in Albemarle County (Va.) prohibited students from wearing, among other things, clothing that depicts weapons or violence. Alan Newsom, a student at the school, filed suit, alleging that the dress code violated the First Amendment because it was an unconstitutionally overbroad and vague limitation on free speech. In the federal court for the Western District of Virginia, Newsom sought a preliminary injunction to halt application of the code until the court determines the merits of his claim. The court denied his request because it found he did not show a substantial likelihood of prevailing on his claim at trial. Newsom appealed.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court and remanded the case with an order to enter a preliminary injunction.

In considering a preliminary injunction, a court considers four things: (1) the likelihood that the plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is denied; (2) the likelihood of harm to the defendant if the injunction is granted; (3) the likelihood that the plaintiff will prevail on the merits; and (4) the public interest. The court began its opinion by considering Newsom’s likelihood of success on the merits.

The court agreed with Newsom’s allegation that the dress code was unconstitutionally overbroad because its prohibition

of clothing relating to weapons included too much expression that is protected by the First Amendment. School officials may limit student speech when it causes, or is likely to cause, a substantial disruption of the educational process. However, the fear of disruption must be well founded and specific, not just a remote apprehension. The court noted that the board presented no evidence that any article of clothing containing a message related to weapons had ever caused a disruption at Jouett or was significantly likely to do so.

The court went on to note that even if the board’s apprehension of disruption had been reasonable, the dress code prohibited too broad a swath of expression to be constitutional: it covered lawful, nonviolent, and nonthreatening symbols of important organizations and ideals. The State Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, shows a woman with one foot on the chest of a vanquished tyrant, holding a spear; the seal would be barred under the dress code. And although the policy would allow a student to wear a T-shirt with the message “No War,” another student would be banned from wearing a T-shirt with a picture of an army tank that urges support for American troops. Indeed, a T-shirt bearing the school’s slogan, “Guns and School Don’t Mix” might even be prohibited under the code. Thus the court found that Newsom’s likelihood of success on the merits of his claim was high.

The court also addressed the other three issues considered in granting a preliminary injunction. As to the possibility of irreparable injury, the court noted that an infringement of the right to free speech, even for a short period of time, is considered an irreparable injury. Next the court found that the school board would in no way be harmed by an order preventing it from enforcing its unconstitutional dress code. Finally, the court concluded by stating that upholding a constitutional right serves the public interest.

summarized by Ingrid M. Johansen

posted Fall 2003