A graduate of Cranston High School West has compelled the school district to revise its dress code policy because the old policy was apparently unconstitutional, according to school officials.
Bill Santagata, who graduated in 2007, said he spotted language in the policy regarding the use of clothing insignia buttons, jewelry, labels, arm bands, signs or other items "which criticize, insult, degrade or have potential to incite any individual group, profession, religion or religious/political beliefs."
Those items being prohibited violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, Santagata said in an e-mail message.
He cited the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, which, Santagata said, "held that students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate."
Mary-Beth Tinker and John Tinker wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War to school. The public school system disciplined them. That lead to a lawsuit that led "one of the High Court's most celebrated rulings," Santagata said.
"Had Mary-Beth and John been students in today's Cranston public school system, they would have been disciplined for criticizing the political decision to go to war in Vietnam," Santagata said. "A student could be disciplined for wearing shirts containing such messages as 'Mitt Romney's tax plan unfairly advantages the upper class' or 'Christianity is a bad religion.' This is not constitutionally permissible."
As with all Supreme Court cases, nothing is quite black and white. Santagata notes that a student couldn't come to school in a chicken suit to protest animal cruelty. The Tinker case lays it out: "Schools can limit speech if it would 'materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,'" he said.
Santagata said he contacted School Committee Member Janice Ruggieri with his concerns about the policy in August.
At a public work session last night, Superintendent Judith Lundsten told the School Committee that the district's lawyers reviewed the policy in response to Santagata's concerns and ended up siding with the former student.
She said the decision was to take language straight out of the Tinker case for the dress code "so we're in compliance."
School Committee lawyer Ronald F. Cascione said the old policy "had specific instances that were prejudicing what was going to happen."
In other words, the district can't preemptively prohibit wearing buttons with messages to prevent a disruptive school environment. That would assume any student wearing a button had the intent to disrupt.
School Committee Member Stephanie Culhane highlighted the murky territory in free speech chases. Even a pen can be used to disrupt a classroom by clicking it rapidly to annoy.
"Who makes the determination as to what is materially disrupting the classroom?" she asked. "What if someone had bracelets and was doing this," she said, rapping her bracelet on the table.
"Could I be banned from the classroom?"
The dress code policy did not cause issues last year when the city was in the midst of an emotional and protracted debate over the prayer banner at Cranston High School West that a federal court judge ruled was unconstitutional.
Students wore T-shirts calling for the prayer banner to be saved. Others wore messages in support of Jessica Ahlquist, the student plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the school district.
Because last night was a work session, no vote was taken and no public comment was made.
The issue will be discussed once again at its next regular business meeting.