Dallas A Waxahachie High School sophomore is at the center of a First Amendment debate after school officials told him he could not wear a T-shirt that supports Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
The parents of 15-year-old Paul T. "Pete" Palmer are asking school officials to reconsider the school district's dress code policy and threatening to sue if no changes are made.
Pete's dad, attorney Paul D. Palmer, said this week that the school district is entitled to a dress code as long as it doesn't violate students' constitutional rights to free political and religious expression.
"This is not about a hippie-dippy idea - 'everyone can wear whatever they want,"' Palmer said. "'This is who I support for president.' He has a right to stick that on his shirt."
The school district declined to provide specifics on the case but provided a written statement, which included the following: "The district also values student speech rights. ... Our schools, however, are not unbounded forums for practicing student speech, and our primary focus remains creating and maintaining an environment conducive to learning."
Pete said he woke up early the morning of Sept. 21 and threw on clothes before rushing off to football practice.
After practice, however, a school official pulled Pete aside and told him he was violating the dress code policy approved in May, which prohibits all-black outfits. He was sent to the administrative offices and told to change clothes before returning to class.
Pete called his father.
"He wanted me to bring another shirt," Palmer said. He then asked Pete, "How about that Edwards shirt? And he said OK."
After changing into the shirt, which read "John Edwards 08" and included a Web site address, he was told again that his clothing violated school policy and he would not be allowed to return to class until he complied, his parents said.
The school dress code policy allows T-shirts that promote Waxahachie clubs, organizations and sports or other spirit wear. College and university T-shirts or solid-colored T-shirts are acceptable.
"All polo style (knit) shirts and shirts with colors containing pictures or slogans that are provocative, offensive, sexual or suggestive in nature, vulgar, lewd or obscene are prohibited. Alcohol and tobacco pictures or slogans are also prohibited," according to the school district's dress code policy.
Pete's mom then brought him a red T-shirt and he returned to class.
The family said they had discussed Waxahachie's dress code during the summer and had been following a Vermont case in which a student was suspended for wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt to school. An appeals court upheld the student's rights and the Supreme Court rejected the school's appeal.
Pete said he did not intend to challenge the dress code that day until he got pulled aside for the black outfit. When his father asked about the Edwards shirt, Pete said, "There was an intention of challenging it at that point and seeing their reaction to it."
The school held a grievance hearing on the matter Oct. 3. In a letter to Pete's parents, Waxahachie High School Principal David Nix denied the family's assertion that Pete's First Amendment rights were being violated.
The letter said students "have a number of opportunities to express themselves through the wearing of buttons, jewelry or other symbols, forming a school-sponsored club, and speaking at limited public forum opportunities available during the day."
The principal also wrote that he was available to assist Pete with forming an approved club or organization such as "Waxahachie High School Students for Edwards."
"This would allow Pete the opportunity to express support for the political candidate of his choice through a school-sponsored organization," the letter said.
Palmer said his family has the opportunity to appeal the principal's decision and is trying to resolve the issue with the school district.