Teenage students' free-speech rights have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of an appeal by the Watson Chapel School District of rulings that supported black-armband protests at the school, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU's Arkansas chapter said in a news release that the nation's highest court declined Monday to hear the school district's appeal of a ruling by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis. The appeals court had affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes that the school system violated the students' rights.
The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the appeal leaves the lower court rulings in place.
"This was a predictable outcome, as it has been clear from the outset that suspending students simply for expressing their opinion is a violation of their constitutional rights," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas.
On Oct. 6, 2006, 31 junior high and high school students in the Watson Chapel district, on the southwest edge of Pine Bluff, wore black armbands to protest a policy requiring them to wear khaki pants with belt loops and a white polo-style shirt with two or three buttons. Students also were required to wear identification badges.
At least 24 of the students were punished with suspensions, although some of them had notes from parents saying they had the parents' permission and the protest was allowed under a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Three of the students, with their parents, filed suit. Before trial, Holmes ruled that the district had violated the students' rights and held a trial only on the issue of damages. A jury found that the students did not prove they deserved either compensatory or punitive damages. Afterward, Holmes granted a motion by the students to amend the jury verdict to award nominal damages, and each was awarded $1.
Holmes also ordered the school district to pay the students' attorneys fees.
The suit initially named members of the Watson Chapel School Board as defendants, along with Superintendent Danny Knight and Watson Chapel Junior High School Principal Henry Webb. But Holmes dismissed the board members as defendants, leaving only Knight and Webb.
Knight retired as superintendent last year, said Danny Hazelwood, the district's current superintendent. Hazelwood declined to comment on the high court's rejection of the district's appeal.
A message left at a telephone number listed for Webb was not immediately returned Wednesday.