Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that overtly Christian student-led prayer over the public address system at public high school football games was a violation of the First Amendment's  Establishment Clause.  The case had been brought by two families, one Mormon and the other Catholic.  The court's decision states that school sponsorship of a religious message – such as prayers delivered by students over public-address systems at football games – is unconstitutional because it sends the message to "non adherents that they are outsiders...and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders." 

Listen to the oral argument: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1999/1999_99_62
Read the decision: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=000&invol=99-62

Plyer v. Doe (1982)

The Texas State Legislature passed a law in 1975 withholding funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" to the United States and authorizing schools to deny them admittance.  In 1977, a "class action" lawsuit was brought on behalf of children of Mexican origin who were being denied an education because they were "undocumented aliens"  - that is, they had entered the country without lawful immigration procedures.   

In its 1982 decision in Plyer v. Doe, the US Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote sided with the students.  The majority pointed out that the Fourteenth Amendment ensures "equal protection of the laws" for all persons, not all citizens. "Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a 'person' in any ordinary sense of that term.  Aliens, even aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as 'persons' guaranteed due process of the law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."  The decision goes on to discuss the "pivotal role of education" in the life of a child and the nation, even though it is not a "right" granted to individuals by the Constitution.  It declares that forcing these children to endure the "stigma of illiteracy" serves no one's interest.  "[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation," the court said.

Read the decision: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=457&invol=202

In 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a Texas law requiring local school boards to set aside one minute of silence in every school for prayer or reflection does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Lower courts have given opposing rulings on state “moment of silence” laws since the US Supreme Court in 1985 struck down an Alabama law on the grounds that its sole purpose was to promote religion and it therefore crossed the line separating Church and State. Three months before the ruling in the Texas case, a federal court in Illinois found that state’s “moment of silence” statute to be unconstitutional.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has jurisdiction in Louisiana and Mississippi as well as Texas.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in 1972 in the case Karr v. Schmidt that students had no constitutionally-protected right to wear their hair in public high schools as they preferred. The decision overturned the ruling of a federal district court which had heard Chesley Karr's challenge to the student grooming and dress code in his El Paso high school.  Because Karr refused to cut his hair, he was denied admission to Coronado High School for his junior year. 

The court said the wearing of long hair to convey individuality and express a message to the world was not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.  Neither, said the court, was the right to wear hair at any length part of the fundamental individual "liberty" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.  And the court decided that limiting the right of male students to wear their hair long while permitting female students to do so was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.    In the view of the court, "The school authorities seek only to accomplish legitimate objectives...the elimination of classroom distraction, the avoidance of violence between long and short-haired students, and the elimination of potential health hazards resulting from long hair in science labs."

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had ruled the opposite way two years previously (see Massachusetts ).

In 1997, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Bastrop Independent School District 's rules concerning the hair length of male students were not a form of discrimination because they did not deny either gender "educational opportunity."  The school had ordered a third grader to cut his five-inch ponytail.  When he refused, he was isolated from the other students and forced to study in a small room with covered windows.  After enduring this isolation for four months, his parents decided to teach him at home.

In 2009, the Somerset Independent School District granted Jesus Figueroa, a Native American high school student, a special dispensation from the district's grooming policy that bans males' hair from touching the collar. The student’s parents had filed a federal lawsuit claiming his right of religious expression was violated when he received an on-campus suspension for failing to cut his hair. The judge sided with the family and ordered school officials to allow the student to return to the classroom.


The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in August 2009 that the dress code of Waxahachie High School which prohibited messages on student clothing except those supporting school activities was a reasonable "time, place and manner" restriction.  Paul Palmer, a sophomore at the high school, had worn shirts saying "San Diego," "John Edwards for President '08" and one with "Freedom of Speech" on the front and the text of the First Amendment on the back, all of which were banned.  After the district court said the student had failed to show that the dress code made him suffer irreparable harm, the Appeals Court upheld the dress code because it was "content-neutral."  The case is being appealed to the US Supreme Court.


The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in October 2009 that a school district in Texas could ban images of the Confederate flag because it was likely that the image could cause a substantial disruption in the school.  The Confederate flag policy had been adopted by Burleson High School in 2002 after there were several racial incidents at the school.  Two female students sued to overturn the policy after they were prohibited from carrying purses featuring the Confederate flag.

In 2007, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Montwood High School officials were justified in suspending a student who wrote a violent story in his journal. The court stated that schools can punish speech that they believe advocates behavior endangering school safety.

In March 2006, Latino students from Cypress Ridge High School, some wearing “We are not Criminals” t-shirts, staged a “walk out” from school to protest immigration legislation being considered by Congress. Following the walk-out, the principal organized an assembly to talk about the immigration issue. He then heard that another walk-out was being planned by Latino students, and that other students were planning to wear “Border Patrol” t-shirts in opposition to the Latino students. In an effort to de-fuse the situation, he banned all unauthorized t-shirts and asked teachers to keep students in their classrooms. After more than 100 Latino students walked out again, they were suspended, and their parents were told to leave the school building when they came to complain about the punishment. Some of the suspended students and their parents then filed a federal lawsuit claiming that there was “a pattern and practice” at the school of preventing them from expressing political viewpoints. School officials maintained that they were only trying to prevent the disruption of the educational process and that they did not intentionally discriminate against one particular group of students. The court sided with school officials, ruling that because there was a history of racial tension at the school, they had to balance student rights to freedom of expression against the overriding need to maintain order.

In 1999, thirty years after the Supreme Court issued its pathbreaking ruling in the black armband case of Tinker v. Des Moines (see Iowa), Jennifer Boccia, a 17-year-old honors student, and about ten of her fellow students at Allen High in Allen, Texas decided to wear black armbands to school.  They wanted to show respect for the victims of the Columbine High School shooting and concern that policies the school enacted after Columbine restricting speech, dress and conducting random searches would create a hostile environment at school. Boccia and several other students were immediately suspended.  She took the issue to federal court and won.  The suspension was expunged from her record.  

In 2007 the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that an 18-year-old student who had violated school rules by leaving her San Antonio public charter school campus during the school day could be punished with a wooden paddle. The student’s hand was injured when she attempted to block a blow of the paddle. She argued that, as a legal adult, she did not have to spent the entire day at the campus and that she could not then be subjected to corporal punishment. However, the court held that since she chose to enroll in the school and attend after her 18th birthday, the same rules applied to her as to the other students.

In 2006, a four-year-old pre-kindergarten student in the La Vega school district was given a one-day in-school suspension for rubbing his face in the chest of a class aide when she was hugging him to calm him down.  The boy's father filed a complaint, claiming his son had no idea why he was punished.  The district then downgraded the incident from sexual harassment to "inappropriate physical contact."