Jury Rules Against Arkansas School District in Free Speech Case

PINE BLUFF, Ark. – A judge ruled that students punished for wearing black armbands in protest to Watson Chapel School District’s uniform policy had their First Amendment rights violated, but the jury did not award damages.

Judge Leon Holmes instructed the jury to decide the amount students Chris Lowry, Colton Dougan and Micheal Joseph were to be awarded. The damages had to equal at least $1.

In October 2006, students and parents passed out black armbands to students in an effort to protest the school district’s dress code policy. Both students and parents alike complained about the restrictive policy, noting that it dictated how many buttons could be on a shirt, and how many belt holes and pockets on pants. In response to the protest, the district suspended 20 students from middle schools and high schools who participated.

Lowry filed a different complaint against the school board. After passing out fliers opposing the dress code without the consent of his principal, he was suspended due to the school’s literature policy. On Aug. 22, the court ruled the school’s policy unconstitutional, as it provided no guidelines about material that could be rejected.

The protest is reminiscent to the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of students who were penalized for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

The court must still decide whether to place a permanent injunction that would prevent the district from penalizing students for similar protests in the future.

Judge Holmes will also tackle the jury’s decision to not award damages to the students, although he instructed them to do so.

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