SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has a message for local school districts: don’t censor the free expression of students.

The office has been active in supporting students in civil liberties cases. For example, after a case involving a student who was singled out for wearing a T-shirt expressing her sexual orientation, board members at Manteca Unified School District voted in mid-February to change the school’s dress code to be clearer in allowing attire that helps students to express their political beliefs.

“We’re glad that the school district updated the dress code,” ACLU Staff Attorney Linnea Nelson told the Northern California Record. Nelson said the ACLU had represented the student who sued two administrators at the school for what she called “blatantly unlawful” suppression of the student’s free speech.

Although Nelson said a lawsuit is the most compelling way to get schools to comply with state law on free speech, litigation is not always needed. The office might start by mailing a letter to see if the school district will decide to do the right thing on its own.

However, enforcing these laws is not always easy: an ACLU press release detailing the Manteca case shows a vice principal wanted the student’s T-shirt banned due to its nature as “sexually suggestive” and that administrators saw the expression as potentially disruptive. This controversy reflects a greater trend of schools wanting to limit certain kinds of free speech based on the idea that some students or parents might object to them.

In response, Nelson contrasted expressions of sexual and gender orientation, which are allowed by law, and “lewd” or “obscene” words or “blatantly sexual expression” for which, she said, a legal standard is available.

As for the notion that the targeted expression was disruptive, Nelson said that doesn’t affect the law, which, as confirmed by the California Supreme Court 50 years ago, protects the rights of students to express their beliefs.

“The law is very clear.” Nelson said. “She was expressing her pride.”

Another ACLU blog from January talks about the battle over student attire at the Clovis Unified School District. In this case, administrators made promises to the ACLU and to local families about creating a gender-equal and fair dress code, that were not ultimately supported by the school board, requiring a concerted response to get the district officials to act in a manner compliant with the law.

“As a public school, the district has an affirmative obligation to combat racism, sexism and other forms of bias, and to provide an equal educational opportunity for all its students,” said Abre’ Conner, an ACLU staff attorney in public comment at a Feb. 24 school board meeting. “We therefore strongly urge the district to do the right and lawful thing for students and revise the dress code.”

In Clovis and elsewhere, the outcomes are not yet certain, but in other places, school boards have been challenged and led to comply with the law.

“Schools should be a place where students are encouraged to think for themselves,” Nelson said.

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