Long hair and the law….again.

On Tuesday we told you about Arnold v. Barbers Hill ISD and the federal court injunction against the district.  The court granted the injunction based on three potentially valid legal claims: sex discrimination (see Tuesday’s Daily Dawg), racial discrimination, and infringement of the First Amendment.

The racial discrimination claim was upheld based on some evidence of unequal enforcement of the dress code.  The plaintiff provided some statistical evidence to support his assertion that students of color were hassled over the long hair issue more than the white students. The court’s decision is a preliminary one, not the final word. But the court found that the plaintiff was substantially likely to succeed on this claim. Therefore, to preserve the status quo pending a full trial, the court issued its injunction ordering the school to serve the student in regular classes, rather than ISS.

It's not unusual for students to assert that dress codes are discriminatory based on sex.  It’s also not unusual for students to assert that school rules are enforced unevenly, with racial minorities getting the short end of the stick. With proper evidence, either of those theories can be successful in court.  But this is the first case in the Dawg’s memory in which a court extended First Amendment protection to a hairstyle associated with African-Americans.  There are previous rulings extending First Amendment protection to Native American hairstyles.   In general, however, the courts have held that one’s choice of hairstyle may be a matter of individual preference, but it is not “suffienctly communicative” to warrant First Amendment protection. The plaintiff wore his hair in dreadlocks, although the court used the term ‘locs, explaining that the more common term, “dreadlocks” was coined by slave traders.  Citing expert testimony from Professor D. Wendy Greene, the court noted that ‘locs were an identifiable reflection of cultural heritage, and thus, they sent a message of reverence for one’s West Indian ancestors.

One other word of caution about this case and its implications for your district. The court noted that the dress code, particularly with regard to long hair on boys, was amended in mid-year. The court noted that this was unusual, and took it as an indication that there may have been a racial motive to the change.  So whatever you do about your dress code, it might be wise to do it next summer as per normal, rather than right now.  That is, unless you want to scrap any reference to hair length…..

The case is Arnold v. Barbers Hill ISD, decided by the federal court for the Southern District of  Texas on August 17, 2020.


Tomorrow: Zooming with the Dawg ReZooms!