When Kentucky teenager, Jacqueline Duty, tried to attend her senior prom in a homemade dress, school officials stopped her at the door. The reason? Her prom dress featured an enormous sequined, confederate flag. In response, Jacqueline took her school district to court claiming that her right to free speech was violated. Based on her case and ones like it, will the south rise or fall?
Dixie Dress Case
School principal Sean Howard was ready for the confederate dress debut. In fact, school officials had been tipped off earlier by a teacher who overheard Duty speaking to other students about her dress. Howard responded by requesting that Duty not wear the dress on the eve of prom.
When Duty ignored the warning and arrived at her prom decked out the controversial get-up, she was met by the principal and two officers at her car. She never was let inside. Instead, she danced on the sidewalk in front of her school in protest.
At a press conference, Duty argued that she wanted to show her pride in her southern heritage. She had worked on the dress for four years; and, done so despite the fact that she knew that others might find it offensive. In fact, she claimed to be surprised by the school's hard stance on the dress arguing that the school had previously been tolerant of confederate flag clothing.
Until the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and others agreed to pay legal expenses, Duty had to wait to file her lawsuit. Now, Duty has the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC) behind her. A non profit law firm, the SLRC advocates for confederate heritage. And, the SLCR is not new to school dress code violation cases. This same team of attorneys represented Timothy Castorina after he was suspended for wearing a T-shirt that had the phrase "Southern Thunder" printed on it. Although the trial judge decided that t-shirts were not a form of free speech, a court of appeals ultimately overturned the decision and ordered a new trial. Eventually, both the school district and Castorina settled out of court. However, the district went on to establish guidelines for offensive clothing and Castorina decided on home schooling.
The SLRC has said that Duty's school violated her right of free speech; in other words, her right to freely express and celebrate her heritage. As a result, she is suing the school district to the tune of $50,000 dollars. She is further claiming defamation, false imprisonment and assault as she claims the principal not only intimidated her by physically striking the car while she was in it but also by trapping her in the area.
The consequences for Duty have been monumental. Duty's lawyers claim she lost scholarships because the incident portrayed her as racist. The former flag-wearer now attends college at ShawneeState in Ohio.
We are all too familiar with the fact that freedom of speech is protected under the First Amendment. However, the rights provided to all citizens under these amendments can be restricted in a school environment. In other words, the rights of public school students are and can be limited while at school. So, while certain clothing has been historically viewed as a form of symbolic or non-verbal speech, it is not absolutely protected in a public school environment.
The question becomes: what clothing has garnered protection? Black armbands meant as silent protest against a war were considered symbolic speech. However, sagging pants were not sufficient representations of black culture and identity to be considered symbolic speech. Where does Duty's dress lie on this sliding scale?
The fashion police reviewing the Kentucky confederate dress have tough criteria. Does the flag dress deserve political or cultural heritage protection under the First Amendment? Was the dress prohibited because it would create disruption? Or because it would infringe on other students' rights? Most importantly, will the courts decide before next prom season?