School District’s Hair-Length Policy Violated Students’ Equal Protection and Free Speech Rights

In the ironically named case of Arnold v. Barbers Hill Independent School District, two Texas brothers filed suit against their school district in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging that the school district’s hair-length policy violated their Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights based on sex and race discrimination, and their First Amendment free speech rights. On August 17, 2020, the district court granted one of the brothers’ motion for a preliminary injunction, thereby barring the school district from enforcing the hair-length policy.

The suit alleges that one of the brothers was told by the school district that he would not be allowed to walk at his graduation ceremony unless he cut his dreadlocks in compliance with the school’s dress code, while the other brother was told that he would be indefinitely enrolled in in-school suspension if he, too, did not cut his dreadlocks. Although the high school later issued a statement claiming that its dress code permits dreadlocks, it acknowledged that its dress policy requires that “hair must be clean and well groomed” and not extend on male students, at any time, below the eyebrows, the ear lobes or the top of a T-shirt collar, including when the hair is let down.

The suit alleges that the high school’s hair-length policy is discriminatory, in that Black students are disproportionately targeted and penalized for violating such “facially race-neutral” grooming policies. The brothers further allege that the policy infringes upon their constitutional rights and “has no legitimate purpose, is wholly arbitrary, and impermissibly regulates how students can wear their hair both inside and outside of school.”

The Texas federal district court held in favor of one brother, concluding that (1) there is a substantial likelihood of success on the merits on the cause of action for sex discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause; (2) the policy runs afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause based on race discrimination; and (3) the lack of a persuasive justification for the hair-length policy establishes a substantial likelihood of success on the First Amendment free speech claim. The district court’s decision grants “temporary relief” while the suit against the school district continues. But for now, the younger brother can return to school with his dreadlocks intact.

Ultimately, this case illustrates the importance of ensuring that dress-code policies, even if “facially race-neutral,” do not have the effect of discriminating against students or infringing upon their constitutional rights.

For questions about this case or dress-code policies, please contact an attorney in our Students/Special Education practice group.

Source: Arnold v. Barbers Hill Independent School District, 2020 WL 4805038 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 17, 2020)

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