August 21, 2002
The ACLU of Utah has received several complaints concerning recent changes in the school uniform and dress code policies of Utah School Districts. Specifically, parents and students are concerned about the inability of students to opt out of mandatory school uniform policies for other than religious or medical reasons. The ACLU of Utah is not likely to challenge this change in policy because several courts have found similar policies to be constitutionally acceptable.
The most recent federal court to address mandatory school uniform policies was the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In two separate cases, Littlefield v. Forney Indep. Sch. Dist., 268 F.3d 275 (5th Cir. 2001) and Canady v. Bossier Parish Sch. Bd., 240 F.3d 437 (5th Cir. 2001), the Fifth Circuit held that mandatory school uniforms do not violate the Constitution. The school uniform policies at issue in these cases are similar to Utah's new dress code policy requiring solid color shirts and pants, allowing little variety in style and fabrics, and granting few exceptions to the policies. The court ruled the policy is constitutional, reasoning that the policy furthered an "important and substantial governmental interest," improving the educational process, and that "federal courts should defer to school boards to decide, within constitutional bounds, what constitutes appropriate behavior and dress in public schools."
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Utah, has not addressed mandatory student uniforms but in the 1970s the court ruled three times that school regulations on the length of hair of male students are constitutional. See Hatch v. Goerke, 502 F.2d 1182 (10th Cir. 1974); New Rider v. Board of Ed., 480 F.2d 693 (10th Cir. 1973); and Freeman v. Flake, 448 F. 2d 258 (10th Cir. 1971). The court said, "The states have a compelling interest in the education of their children. The states, acting through their school authorities and their courts, should determine what, if any, hair regulation is necessary to the management of their schools." Freeman, 448 F. 2d at 261. The court's rulings are similar in substance and analysis to the Fifth Circuit's statements suggesting that the Tenth Circuit would allow mandatory school uniform and dress code policies under the Constitution.