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Cranston Grad Convinces School District its Dress Code is Unconstitutional

The district is revising its dress code policy after recent graduate Bill Santagata raised Constitutional concerns.

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.

nicole fine September 13, 2012 at 04:19 PM
If they are so concerned about dress codes/policies, why don't they take a good look at the way middle and high school girls dress?!?! Make a rule that ALL shirts have sleeves, and NO CLEAVAGE allowed!!! No Daisy Duke shorts!
Bill Santagata September 13, 2012 at 07:46 PM
Tinker v. Des Moines does not touch on modesty provisions (length of shorts, sleeves on shirts, etc.) which schools have full control over. I addressed Ms. Culhane's comment on pen tapping via e-mail. Her concern is without merit. Speech, as defined under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, must have some communicative content, which the act of pen tapping does not. Even if it were considered "speech" this is precisely the sort of material and substantial distractions that schools are allowed to prohibit. In the Tinker case, plaintiffs wore black armbands with peace symbols to protest the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. They did not make any noises or disrupt classes in any way. -Bill Santagata
Bill Santagata September 13, 2012 at 11:36 PM
Also, I should add that that is NOT me in the photo. I would never wear such a shirt, although students do have the constitutional right to do so.
Small Change September 14, 2012 at 02:50 AM
Clearly you are the kind of person who would stand in the middle of the bike path making everyone ride around you and yelling 'Its my right! Its in the Constitution!' Yes it is and yes you can. But you really don't have to.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 09:19 AM
No, you do not have a constitutional right to block traffic. This provision is unconstitutional and the School Committee has no authority to enact it or enforce it. It violates our right to Freedom of Speech and I will not sit back and let them get away with it.
Anne September 14, 2012 at 10:40 AM
Cranston west strikes again with their BS .....Get a life and use your energies to change and improve important things in this world.
Kimberly Manchester September 14, 2012 at 11:17 AM
http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=124249671461500618&q=fighting+words&hl=en&as_sdt=2,40 1942, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire; the Supreme Court ruling on "fighting words" sounds awfully similar to the dress code that was just struck down. It is interesting to see how times change... www.asktazi.com
Small Change September 14, 2012 at 11:41 AM
It is not illegal to stand in the middle of the bike path and make everyone go around you. It is generally not done because most people are trying to cooperate to promote a civil society. Once again, you are making the leap from 'The Constitution gives me the right to push people around for no reason', which is true, though fortunately most people choose not to, to 'I have an obligation to defend the Constitution by pushing people around for no reason.'
Mary Beth Tinker September 14, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Good way to celebrate Constitution Day Sept. 17, Cranston! An added benefit is that research shows that student outcomes improve when schools not only teach democracy, but practice it. Here's to the First Amendment- and to you!
Jonathan Keith September 14, 2012 at 04:48 PM
I believe that this move to push the constitution in the school system is great!! Most people do not even know what it is; forget about the efforts of Bill to force the school department to uphold it. I commend you on your efforts and success. However this counter argument on the cloths that teenagers are wearing and the promotion of sexual attraction, which can occur from it, is not the schools problem. The parents have a moral obligation to bring their children up with standards they should and need to live their lives by. If this is not successful do not blame the constitution but the poor parenting abilities on behalf of the parental influences. When did this country forget or willingly give up their options and freedoms in hopes that the government will pick up where you as a parent fallen short. Having a child no longer is a thought out process due to the lack of responsibility for the parent to do their job and raise a child with hard morals and values with respect and understandings of consequences. This poor counter argument is a further acceptance of the de-evolution of society and I find it personally detrimental to the future of this country.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Small Change: Just because something is legal does not make it a constitutional right. There may not be a law stopping you from standing in the middle of the bike path, but the government could pass a law against this if it wanted to. It is not a constitutionally protected right to be able to stand in the middle of the bike path, even if it is legal. For another example: it is legal to smoke cigarettes, but you do not have a constitutional right to do so. The government could, if it wanted to, ban them like it does marijuana. Even if this dress code provision did create a more civil society, a school committee does not have the power or authority to enact provisions that strip United States citizens of their ***constitutional right*** to Freedom of Speech. The fact that you would encourage a government body to strip people of their constitutional rights is troubling.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 08:36 PM
The government can restrict "fighting words." This dress code provision goes much farther than banning mere fighting words, however. It would prohibit any and all criticism of any individual, group, profession, religion, or political belief.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 08:38 PM
I agree that parents have a moral obligation to require that their children dress appropriately for school. Unfortunately, however, many parents do not uphold this obligation and some students take off clothes once they leave the house. I do believe that schools should encourage some degree of professionalism in their schools and I fully support such provisions (e.g. shorts can't be too short, clothing can't be ripped, etc.). My issue is with only one rule of the dress code that regards student speech. It is only this regulation that is unconstitutional. The rest of the dress code is perfectly okay.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 08:53 PM
I really do not understand why anyone would support the government stripping them of their constitutional rights. Changing this policy costs $0. Keeping it on the books will put the school district forever at risk of attracting a lawsuit which will cost $150,000.
Small Change September 14, 2012 at 09:38 PM
=Small Change: Just because something is legal does not make it a constitutional right. There may not be a law stopping you from standing in the middle of the bike path, but the government could pass a law against this if it wanted to. It is not a constitutionally protected right to be able to stand in the middle of the bike path, even if it is legal.= Hardly. You don't think that if i had the 'bannerist mentality' I wouldn't be going to court (with ACLU support), in a heartbeat to protect my Constitutional 'Right of Assembly' to stand in the middle of the bike path and make every body else go around me? It's right there in the Constitution, plain as day. I mean, I would only be inconveniencing other people, and 'other people' certainly don't matter if you love the Constitution enough. Given that some people would file a complaint demanding attention because someone in the future may or may not wear an armband that may or may not be constitutional at a school they attended five years ago - I think the bike path claim hardly looks ridiculous at all.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 10:24 PM
The Constitution protects the right to "****peaceably**** assemble." This doesn't mean you have the right to do whatever you want. You do not, for example, have the right to assemble in the middle of a four-way intersection. Even if we were to assume that standing in the middle of a bike path were a constitutional right, how is this comparable to wearing a political shirt in school? Standing in the middle of the bike path inconveniences people, but how does wearing a political shirt that does not pose "substantial and material disruptions" inconvenience anyone? Think about the disturbing implications of this amendment: By forbidding any criticism of any group or political belief, the Cranston School Committee, despite being democratically elected members of our city government, have put themselves above criticism: students are forbidden from criticizing their decisions that affect them on a daily basis. No, I am no longer a Cranston Public Schools student. Nor am I a parent of one. Therefore, I could not file a lawsuit against this provision. However, as a citizen of Cranston, I think I do have the right to voice my concerns about unconstitutional actions by our government.
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 10:24 PM
As the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (another student freedom-of-speech case): "The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures-Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes."
Bill Santagata September 14, 2012 at 10:47 PM
Thank you very much Ms. Tinker! (FYI for everyone else: This is one of the plaintiffs in Tinker v. Des Moines. She's the girl in the photo!)
Small Change September 15, 2012 at 12:17 PM
=The Constitution protects the right to "****peaceably**** assemble." This doesn't mean you have the right to do whatever you want. You do not, for example, have the right to assemble in the middle of a four-way intersection.= Sure, you might win that, but you certianly might not - AND- the city would have to defend itself from the lawsuit. I see no reason why the city should put itself at risk of losing $150,000 just to stop some malcontent from disrupting the community. Far better, by your logic, just to give in and close the bike path.
Bill Santagata September 15, 2012 at 12:27 PM
It is indisputable that it is within the government's power to enact laws to stop people from blocking or impeding traffic: whether it be on a road, a sidewalk, or a bike path. You're comparing apples to oranges. Here it is indisputable that this dress code provision is unconstitutional and that the School Committee did not have the power to enact it. The school district's attorney agrees with me. Supreme Court precedent clearly agrees with me. You're right, the City shouldn't risk $150,000 in a lawsuit. This is why they should modify this dress code provision to bring it within constitutional guidelines and restore the right to Freedom of Speech that they stripped our students of. Again, this doesn't mean that students have the freedom to do or say whatever they want wherever they want whenever they want in schools: schools can stop speech that poses material and substantial distractions to education.
Bill Santagata September 15, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Also, this only applies to "pure speech" (speech communicated directly through the spoken or written word) as opposed to "speech plus" (speech communicated symbolically through activities, such as demonstrations). I'm not saying students have the right to riot over a math test. In the Tinker case, the plaintiffs had the right to silently wear armbands protesting the political decision to go to war in Vietnam. This dress code provision would prohibit that very same act that the Supreme Court held to be a constitutional right. Imagine, if the School Committee voted to defund sports for example, students would be unable to show their solidarity by wearing shirts to school criticizing the decision. This is what is most egregious to me: the School Committee (I am sure unintentionally) has put itself above criticism.
Bill Santagata September 15, 2012 at 12:35 PM
Another problem with the provision is that it is not content-neutral: it prohibits materials that *criticize* any individual, group, profession, religion, or political belief, but would allow materials that *support* those same individuals, groups, etc. It would allow, for example, a pro-PETA shirt but forbid an anti-PETA shirt. Speech restrictions that are not content-neutral are presumed by the courts to be unconstitutional.

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