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Uniforms may violate free speech rights

August 26, 2010

Hearings began today in the ACLU challenge to mandatory school uniforms in Woonsocket public schools. Woonsocket school officials have agreed to a 30-day grace period while the case gets underway at the State Department of Education.

Hearing officer Forrest Avila said he is concerned about potential First Amendment violations.

“Under the constitution as the Supreme Court has most recently interpreted it, students have got to be able to wear certain devices or emblems in the exercise of their free speech,” Avila said.

Woonsocket school officials promised that students’ free speech rights would be upheld.

“Any legitimate exercise of free speech will be permitted,” said Richard Ackerman, an attorney for the Woonsocket School Department.

The policy does allow students to apply for waivers for reasons of health, religion or appropriate free speech. The question is who decides what’s appropriate, says John Dineen, the attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of four Woonsocket parents.

“As a parent, I always wanted to make sure that my kids went to school dressed appropriately,” said Dineen. “But do I want the government telling me which color shirt my kids have to wear? That brings up scary connotations to me.”

Dineen contends that the policy violates students’ civil rights and constitutes an illegal fee for parents who have to purchase the uniforms. He will ask that the policy be disqualified on the grounds that it was imposed improperly without voter approval.

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