Nevada School-Uniform Policy Held Unconstitutional

The Fruddens, who live in Reno, Nevada, sent their children to Roy Gomm Elementary School for grades K-6.  Before the 2011-2012 school year, the school enacted a new uniform policy which required students to wear red or navy-blue polo t-shirts or sweatshirts, as well as khaki-colored “bottoms” such as pants, capris, shorts, or skirts.  The shirts and sweatshirts depicted the name of the school, a stylized school mascot, and the school’s motto: “Tomorrow’s Leaders.”

RG
An example of the school-approved red polo shirt. (Ed Pearce)

 

Exemptions from the uniform policy included when a student wore a uniform of a nationally recognized institution (such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts), “spirit wear” days, and “free dress” field trips.  Jon and Mary Frudden, who had a daughter in 3rd grade and a son in 5th when the policy was enacted, sued, arguing that the policy violated their children’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The Fruddens argued that “Tomorrow’s Leaders” was not a content-neutral message.  In their view, the motto was elitist.  In response, the school argued that the motto focused the students’ attention on learning, not clothes, and that it prevented bullying from students wearing cheaper clothing.  But the Ninth Circuit found that the motto was not “narrowly tailored” to those interests.  The school, said the Court, could have enforced a uniform policy which served those interests without the motto.  The Court also pointed out that the school’s exemption for nationally recognized youth groups did not serve any compelling interests for the school thereby also violating the First Amendment.

If you think that the Fruddens were making much ado about nothing, remember that–in the First Amendment context–courts don’t care how many people object to a particular message or how much those people care.  The Fruddens cared; that’s all that mattered.

Case: Frudden v. Pilling, No. 15-15448 (9th Cir. Dec. 11, 2017) (opinion here)

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