Dress codes are not unconstitutional

By Scott Tibbs, August 8, 2007

"When you come to school dressed to play, you'll play. When you come to school dressed to work, you'll work."

That was the explanation given for the dress code policy at my high school, Grace Baptist Academy in Angola, Indiana. There were other benefits too, such as enforcing a modesty standard. With the destructive influence of celebrities such as Britney Spears, policies that encourage modesty have become more necessary in the years since I graduated. Because of the benefits that uniforms or dress codes provide, more and more government schools are implementing such standards.

Such policies have not come without objection. Scott and Laura Bell of Anderson, Indiana filed a lawsuit against the school system, alleging that the uniform policy is a violation of their children's First Amendment rights and that the policy violates the Indiana constitution's "guarantee of a free public education." However, the Indiana Constitution does not require a totally free education; it requires that "tuition shall be without charge."

Furthermore, Indiana's government schools can (and do) charge for textbook rental. The uniform policy, from a constitutional standpoint, is no different than requiring families to pay for books. If uniforms are ruled in violation of Article 8 if the Indiana Constitution, then textbooks must be as well. While legislators have been working on having the state pay for textbooks, they are under no legal obligation to do so. Likewise, while it would be a good idea for government schools to subsidize required uniforms, schools are not legally obligated to do so.

Another complaint is that strict dress codes or uniforms violate the right to raise children without government interference. I'm afraid the horse has already escaped, so closing the barn door is not going to help matters. The fact that education is mandatory in the state of Indiana already provides a limitation on how parents can raise their children. The majority of Hoosier children spend much of their day in a government school building being taught as the government sees fit. Compulsory education is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think these parents are ignoring the forest for the twigs.

And no, this is not a violation of children's First Amendment rights to "express themselves". In the Anderson schools, everyone is treated equally and must wear the same type of clothing. No one would be so foolish as to suggest that all dress standards are a violation of free speech rights. Is there a line where a dress code becomes illegal? Censorship of ideas, obviously, is one area schools need to avoid, but school uniforms are not that type of censorship. The question is where the line is drawn. School uniforms and dress codes are safely on the right side of the line.