Dress Codes in Public Schools


Illustration by Julia Dun Rappaport

Julia Dun Rappaport, Staff Writer

Illustration by Julia Dun Rappaport

Students have a constitutional right to express themselves through clothing, however, when that clothing is offensive, dangerous, or harmful, public schools have the right to institute a reasonable and fair dress code without being sexist, problematic, or denying students their constitutional freedoms of speech and expression.   

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression to American citizens. Many express themselves through clothing, and dress codes could be seen as constraining that freedom. However, some argue that dress codes are instituted for safety reasons, or to limit disruptions to class. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” Additionally, Justice Abe Fortas, writer of the majority decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines, wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This quotation means that the rights that all American citizens have, including the freedom to express oneself through speech or clothing are maintained wherever citizens may go, including in schools. Tinker was a student who was expelled for wearing an anti-war armband to school. She sued the school, and the case won in the Supreme Court (7-2). This case ruled that public schools have no right to limit students’ constitutional right to express themselves through clothing, however, if the garments are or could be a threat to students’ safety, learning, or if it limits other students’ rights, the school should intervene. For example, garments with hateful speech on them creates an unsafe learning environment. Protection for the freedom of speech often means allowing everyone to voice opinions. While this may seem unrelated to dress codes, the students’ right to voice their opinions extends to their clothing, making dress codes a limitation of their constitutional rights. Nobody should be silenced, and school dress codes do just that. The second quotation clearly states that students do not lose their rights in school. This applied to dress codes shows that schools cannot and should not constrain the expression of students through limitations on their clothing. 

Additionally, dress codes are sexist in the majority of schools that have them. According to an Atlantic article: The Sexism of School Dress Codes, “Many… have criticized the dress codes as sexist in that they unfairly target girls by body-shaming and blaming them for promoting sexual harassment.” The author further points out, “Meanwhile, gender non-conforming and transgender students have also clashed with such policies on the grounds that they rigidly dictate how kids express their identities.” This more than points out how wrong dress codes can be, and how we, as students, teachers, school administration, and people need to rethink dress codes. They are sexist, they restrict freedom of speech and expression, control and limit how pupils express themselves, and need to be rethought. 

One could argue that dress codes keep the school safe and help learning. According to ncac.org, “…the school’s dress code was constitutionally permissible…” To some, this quote could show that dress codes are permitted in the constitution, and therefore having them cannot be unconstitutional. Additionally, in Supreme Court cases, restrictions on speech and expression were permissible, as in the case Bethel vs. Fraser. In a school assembly, a student, Matthew Fraser, nominated a friend for elective office, including lewd and inappropriate references and jokes in his nomination. Fraser was suspended and sued the school. The case made it to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Burger decided that there are restrictions on how students speak and express themselves in school, and the court decided in a 7-2 majority that the First Amendment allows schools to limit profane language if the speech goes against the “fundamental values of public school education.” One could argue that this could be applied to dress codes, as certain clothing could be considered against public schools’ values. People speak through their clothing, and this decision shows that schools are allowed to limit this expression. Although the constitution does not get into the specifics of allowing dress codes, its main purpose is to protect rights. However, with unnecessary school dress codes, students are being denied their rights and freedoms, not protected. Furthermore, school dress codes bring more harm, shame and restrictions than they do safety, and need to be thought about before being blindly accepted. 

        School dress codes are sexist, iniquitous, and deny students of their constitutional freedoms of speech and expression, which is why they need to be rethought. We need new systems, where the only garments that are banned are actually offensive and disruptive, where female students are not sexualized because of their clothing, and all students can safely and freely express themselves.