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Apodaca: Trying to get some dress sense

October 11, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

Every year about this time, when the school session is still young, administrators, parents and students reengage in the age-old battle over what is and isn't appropriate clothing.

On school campuses, dress codes are brandished like sacred documents, and principals make declarations to parents and kids alike that they're going to take this business seriously. Moms and dads go to battle over their children's clothes, sometimes failing to notice that they aren't setting a particularly good example themselves.

Meanwhile, kids respond in a variety of ways, from grudging compliance and sullen embarrassment to outright defiance. As with many adult-imposed rules and restrictions, when it comes to choice of attire, children typically profess a profound lack of understanding as to what the big deal is all about.

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Occasionally, school dress code dust-ups reflect larger societal issues. Take the recent case of an Anaheim teen who was forced by school officials to remove her National Rifle Assn. T-shirt because it depicted a firearm. The girl's parents complained that her constitutional rights had been violated, and the school ended up apologizing.

Similarly, controversies over student clothing choices have touched on topical concerns about religion, gender issues, fairness to gay and lesbian students, and other matters of equality and free expression.

Courts tend to favor the free speech argument, ever since the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of students to wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam War. But there have been enough conflicting rulings and exceptions — such as when clothing is found to be disruptive or infringing on the rights of others — that confusion often prevails.

Of course, some rules are prompted by safety concerns, such as those banning gang-associated clothing. Others restrict apparel bearing words or symbols that reference drugs, violence, alcohol and sex, yet even those have been applied unevenly.

A case of taking such restrictions too far surfaced recently when students were penalized for wearing breast cancer awareness bracelets with the message "I heart boobies." A federal appeals court recently sided with the students, but its ruling left some observers scratching their heads.

The court found that "plainly lewd" expression could be banned, but "ambiguously lewd" speech in support of a cause was OK — a decision clouded with ambiguity itself.

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