A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has cast legal doubt on a Nevada school district’s uniform policy, holding that requiring students to wear shirts with the school’s motto “Tomorrow’s Leaders” is a form of compelled speech that implicates the First Amendment. The 9th circuit panel also held that an exception to the requirement to wear the school uniform, which allowed students to wear their Boy Scout or Girl Scout uniform on days when they had meetings, was a content-based restriction that also implicated the free speech clause.

The court stopped short of striking down the school’s uniforms and uniform policy as the school district did not have the opportunity to present justifications for the infringement of speech, since the original lawsuit was dismissed by the federal trial court.

The Washoe County school district policy drew an objection from the parent of two elementary-aged students. According to court papers, the students initially challenged the policy by wearing their soccer uniforms to school. When this was unsuccessful, the family sued the school district on free speech grounds.

A federal district court dismissed the suit, citing their prior decision  in Jacobs v. Clark County School District that upheld another Nevada school district’s uniform policy. But that policy involved school uniforms that called for plain pants and shirts, without a school motto. The 9th Circuit, in Frudden v. Pilling, distinguished its earlier ruling. 

In its most recent decision, the court stated that “the inclusion of the motto ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders’ on its uniform shirts is not meaningfully distinguishable from the state of New Hampshire’s inclusion of the motto ‘Live Free or Die’ on its license plates.” The court held that “practically speaking, [the school] compels its students to be an instrument for displaying the RGES motto” and, as a result, “compels speech.”

On remand, the school district will have a chance to justify its policy under a strict scrutiny standard. In the meantime, public schools that require uniforms with motto’s or other expressions will be watching this case closely.