First Amendment Challenged at Cam High


James McNellis via WikiMedia

A supporter of Donald Trump wears a “MAGA” hat at a pre-inauguration rally on January 19, 2017.

Cam High’s Principal Mr. Matthew La Belle recently clarified and enforced a ban on all political wear at Cam High.

La Belle sent an email to all staff members during second period on Sept. 12 asking teachers to stop class and check their students’ attire for any political affiliations. The email cited a board policy that prohibited such articles of clothing on campus.

Prior to the email, La Belle, who is new to the OUHSD this year, was unaware of the district’s policy against political wear until he received a phone call from district officials regarding proper school attire.

According to senior Skyy Paulson, La Belle asked him to remove his Trump 2020 hat during third period after students had reported concerns. Paulson said he was confronted by a teacher just prior to La Belle’s request, who took a picture of the hat with Paulson’s consent. “I see people wearing political clothing: hats and t-shirts and stuff. No one really says anything until it’s something they disagree with,” said Paulson.

La Belle also said that incidents like these — where a student has worn politically affiliated clothing to school and a group of students expressed concern — has happened before throughout the Oxnard Union High School District. The policy was meant to prevent such events from occurring. The district claims this policy has been long-standing; it was adopted in 1999 and revised in 2002.

Dr. Tom McCoy, Assistant Superintendent of Education Services came to Cam High and spoke to the Stinger. “Honestly, I was a high school principal for 12 years, including at Hueneme High School, and it’s really (year to year) changing all the time so I can’t hold the 2019-2020 students, for example, to the 2001-2002 school year because there are things that have evolved culturally and in the community that could be different,” McCoy said.

Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, ruled that students have the freedom to wear politically affiliated attire with the exception of any material that incites fear or concern in staff or the student body and results in a disruption, making it impossible for learning to take place.

The OUHSD district policy requests that all clothing with political affiliation should not be worn to school in prevention of any possible disturbances. “It is not the intent of the Governing Board to suppress free speech nor freedom of expression, but to take action designed to strengthen the safety of the campuses in order to promote greater student achievement. Students cannot learn nor can staff work or teach in an atmosphere of fear,” states Board Policy 5132.

“I am not sure that the district has examined all the case law precedent regarding political speech on clothing in public schools. In case after case where school districts attempted to restrict political speech, courts have ruled that political speech on clothing is legal,” said one of Cam High’s social sciences teachers, Mr. Chris Quinn.

In another OUHSD Board Policy regarding students’ rights to freely express their political affiliations, it states “students have the right to exercise free expression including, but not limited to the use of bulletin boards, the distribution of printed materials or petitions, and the wearing of buttons, badges and other insignia.”

According to the Tinker case, schools are allowed to create a policy restricting politically affiliated clothing if they have a “reasonable forecast of substantial disruption.” In past cases, schools often failed to provide evidence of a disruption where class is impossible to teach. 

For example, in Nixon v. Northern Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. in Ohio, a student wore a t-shirt to school that had the phrases “INTOLERANT–Jesus said . . . I am the way, the truth and the life.–John 14:6.” as well as “Homosexuality is a sin!–Islam is a lie!–Abortion is murder!–Some issues are just black and white.”

The court ruled that the student was allowed to continue wearing the t-shirt because, while some students and staff found it offensive, the school failed to provide evidence of substantial disruption or past cases where there was violence or disorder. To read about more such cases reference this link.

“What I would say is we believe the dress code here  is supported by board and district policy and case law. We know we could come under a test of that and we’d be willing to take that test if it came to that, but what I will tell you is we don’t find any issue now,” said McCoy.

Stinger Staff members: Ian Lattimer, Huy Nguyen, and Aishvari Trivedi contributed to this story.