NEW ORLEANS – In response to a demand letter issued by the ACLU of Louisiana, the St. Tammany Parish School Board has granted two students an exemption to their “dress and grooming” policy, allowing the children to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ face masks without facing punishment. Last December, Aidan and Suriah White were threatened with discipline and suspended for wearing the masks, which is a clear violation of their First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
On December 9, 13-year-old Suriah White, who attends William Pitcher Junior High School, was told that her mask violated the school district’s policy that notes “styles of dress and grooming should never be such that they represent a collective or individual protest.” An administration official at William Pitcher then notified staff at Pine View Middle School, where Suriah’s younger sibling Adian was wearing the same mask. Both children were eventually pulled from class and sent to in-school suspension.
Following the punishment, the ACLU of Louisiana quickly intervened and sent a demand letter to Superintendent Jabbia asking that the St. Tammany School Board immediately rectify the violation and confirm in writing that the children will be allowed to wear their masks without further discipline from school officials.
“Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors,” said Bruce Hamilton, ACLU of Louisiana senior staff attorney. “As their mother pointed out to administration officials, the students are not engaging in active protest by wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ masks—but even if they were, school officials cannot constitutionally prohibit non-violent protest.”
“I am not happy about this at all,” said Ebony Wright, mother of both children. “My children are still very emotional and they feel like this has been too much. The exemption itself only proves that there is racism going on [within the schools]—we had to go through so many meetings just to have this approved. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a freedom of speech, not a protest, and the fact that they made us do an exemption is almost like putting a sign above my head that says ‘coloreds drink here.’”
Under the First Amendment, Suriah and Aidan—and all other students—are allowed to peacefully protest in whatever manner they choose, so long as it does not materially and substantially interfere with school operations. More specifically, students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless the expression substantially disrupts classwork or invades the rights of others, or if the expression is lewd, vulgar, or promotes illegal drug use. Students engaging in silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance —just as Ms. Wright’s children—have long been protected by the Amendment.
“The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is itself an affirmation, a statement of the inherent value and dignity of human beings. The refusal of the school to allow these students to wear their masks is a violation of their right to free speech,” said Alanah Odoms, ACLU of Louisiana executive director. “While we’re pleased that the St. Tammany Parish School Board decided to adhere to the Constitution and grant these students an exemption to their policy, we will remain vigilant, continuing to monitor the situation and ensure the rights of students are not further infringed.”