It is graduation season and issues concerning graduation conduct and dress come to the forefront during this time of the year. A recent decision by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma provides some insight and guidance for school districts when it comes to graduation attire.
Hayden Griffith, a graduating senior at Caney Valley Public Schools, is an enrolled member of the Delaware Tribe and the Cherokee Nation. Shortly before her graduation, a tribal elder gave an eagle feather in recognition of her academic success. Part of her religious beliefs concerns the sacred nature of eagle feathers. According to Griffith, in her culture when a person is ceremoniously given an eagle feather for an occasion, it is a sign of disrespect to not wear the feather. Also, according to Griffith’s religious beliefs, when an eagle feather is worn it must be worn on the head.
After receiving the eagle feather, Griffith requested permission from her school to wear the feather attached to the top of the graduation cap along with the traditional tassel. Her request was denied, as the school stated that students were not allowed to wear decorations on their caps at graduation. The school, however, gave Griffith the option of wearing the feather on a necklace, clipped to her hair, or holding it in her hand. Griffith rejected these options, and responded that to not wear the feather on her cap during graduation would be disrespectful to the feather, the tribal elder and God.
In response to the school district’s decision, Griffith filed legal action alleging that the school violated her First Amendment rights. Griffith claimed that the school has created a limited public forum for student expression in their graduation attire, and her wearing of an eagle feather is private student speech, which schools can restrict only if such expression will “substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. CXmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 509 (1969). In response, the school contended that a student’s graduation attire is school-sponsored speech and that its policy prohibiting decorations on graduation caps is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns, referring to the standard first put forth in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeirer, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).
The Court found Griffith’s argument unpersuasive, holding that school facilities are deemed public forums only if school authorities have opened those facilities for indiscriminate use by the public or some segment of the public. Here the school did not create a forum of any kind, as the school did not allow students any form of personal expression on their graduation caps during the commencement ceremony. To the extent that the graduation attire was an expressive activity, it was school-sponsored speech.
The Court also found that the school’s graduation dress policy was reasonably related to a pedagogical concern, such as avoiding controversy that could arise if each student was allowed to wear his or her own religious, cultural or familial emblems or symbols. This policy, which was transmitted to the students in a written notice, could be enforced by the school district without violating any student’s right to personal expression.
Despite the fact that graduation ceremonies take up only about two hours out of the entire school experience, they certainly generate more than their fair share of litigation. School districts are well advised to have clear policies for graduation ceremonies, and even then, be prepared for challenges by students.