Texas high school student, DeAndre Arnold, has been suspended for not cutting his dreadlocks, in violation of a decades-old hair length rule at his mostly white school. Arnold, who says his hair reflects his family’s Trinidadian identity, has garnered national attention and an invite to the Oscars. His case is not a matter of fashion, but about whether schools will respect students’ expressions of identity and individuality or punish them. A young man is being denied an education for failure to comply with an appearance code that is unrelated to academic achievement, student health, or student safety. This incident provides an opportunity to look at how K-12 education shapes students’ ideas about personal expression and liberty. I would argue that those of us who care about robust expression on college campuses should advocate for a fresh approach in K-12 education.
In January, I attended a wonderful event, “Shouting Fire: Standing Up for the First Amendment,” at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School in Maryland. The student newspaper, The Tattler, conceived and executed this all-day consortium on the First Amendment, launching with a keynote address by Mary Beth Tinker. Tinker, whose suspension for free expression brought us the Supreme Court case bearing her name, delivered a hopeful message that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
When it was my turn to talk, I challenged the students to consider what it would be like to have Joseph Frederick give a keynote speech. The Supreme Court upheld Frederick’s suspension for displaying a “bong hits for Jesus” banner at a school-sponsored event, thus affirming schools’ authority to determine which speech is disruptive (and therefore punishable, with consequences that include denial of education through suspension). Today’s K-12 students live more in the shadow of Frederick than the glow of Tinker.
Today, we teach students that limits on expression are necessary to the educational environment. Girls are told that the shapes of their adolescent bodies are distracting to boys and must be covered in service of education. Before students ever reach college, we condition them to believe that learning communities are brittle and fragile and that individual expression might break them. As in DeAndre Arnold’s case and other dress codes that disproportionately affect black girls, many schools are sending a message that certain identities are more disruptive to education than others.
In my experience, students arrive at college, having internalized the idea that educational institutions can limit expression in service of their educational missions. They are often surprised to learn how the First Amendment applies to expression on campus. While I’ve never had a student lament having to leave restrictive, arbitrary dress codes behind, I have seen students struggle to accept that their peers could, for example, wear a sweatshirt with a provocative saying or controversial symbol on it.
It should not surprise us that many college students believe that administrators and faculty have the power—and perhaps even the obligation—to limit expression. More often than not, students have received no explanation about why the restrictive approach in high schools does not apply in college. Consequently, our students do not come fully equipped for the relatively unrestricted speech environment of college.
I run a program committed to the robust exchange of ideas and respectful and inclusive learning communities, and I have come to learn the complexities of this issue. One could believe (as I do) that policing an expression of culture, such as dreadlocks, is needlessly restrictive while recognizing that a student’s display of a swastika could offend or even scare his or her peers. And colleges should weigh this carefully because free speech can be both essential and bruising—a fact that our First Amendment jurisprudence recognizes.
But as we work to foster openness to difference, we must recognize that our students have been taught that schools have the power and duty to limit even the most benign expression (e.g., the sight of a bra strap, a student’s natural hair). These students’ appeals for intervention are a direct result of their educational experiences—not a reflection of peculiar sensitivities.
So, what are we to do? First, I believe college educators must look at the rules and norms that apply in high schools, including the Morse v Frederick standard, and the highly authoritarian approaches that prevail there. We should be thoughtful about laying the groundwork for the transition to college. Orientations and onboarding programs should include information about the school’s standards for speech and expression, and how they depart from the K-12 model.
Second, we should engage students in conversations about why colleges will decline to intervene in many clashes of ideas, even extreme ones, short of harassment, threats, or material disruption (even at private schools that are not bound by the First Amendment).
Third, we must recognize that many students have not had much practice engaging across lines of major ideological and socio-cultural difference and provide more tools, resources, and training to help students do that more effectively. That includes information about what students are free to do and how student experiences in college are bound to be different than those in high school. For example, while students are not bound by rigid appearance codes in college, some students might find that their new college town doesn’t have a place that can properly style hair like theirs. This presents a different sort of limitation on their capacity to express their identities.
Finally, those of us in higher education should encourage and welcome a national conversation re-visiting the way that primary and secondary educators wield the significant authority the courts have given them. K-12 education is the training ground for higher education, citizenship, the workforce, and life in our communities. When schools leverage that authority to limit simple expressions of personal identity, they send a message that educational communities are fragile and that expression easily breaks them. By enforcing these limitations with punishment, teachers and administrators send a message that it is authority figures, not the students themselves, who set limits and negotiate difference.
Instead of railing against what we believe is Gen Z’s resistance to open inquiry and expression, we should safeguard their autonomy to express themselves throughout their lives. We should encourage school districts and educators to abandon superficial rules unrelated to their educational missions. Although dress and hair codes have a long history, that does not make them right. As Justice Kennedy wrote, “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.” If we in higher education wish to foster a love of free expression among college students, we should fight for their right to experience that freedom throughout their lives, especially in school.