Patrick Gonzalez, a student at Woodlake Hills Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, really likes the San Antonio Spurs. Indeed, he likes them so much that he shaved Spurs’ player Matt Bonner’s image into the back of his head. Seriously:
Unfortunately for Gonzalez, his school principal apparently does not share his love for Mr. Bonner, as Gonzalez’s school told him to get rid of the haircut or he will receive an in-school suspension.
This is hardly the greatest injustice in human history, but the school district’s actions are probably unconstitutional. Although public school students do not have the same First Amendment rights they enjoy beyond the schoolhouse doors, the Supreme Court established more than four decades ago that schools may only censor expression that “might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” No doubt Gonzalez’s haircut prompted some of his classmates to comment on it when they should have been paying attention to a lesson, but it’s tough to imagine the haircut would have caused “substantial” disruption of the classroom. Kids get excited by new things, then they get bored with them, and a schoolteacher should be capable of dealing with this fact in a way that does not strip their students of their ability to express themselves.
Admittedly, some lower courts have suggested that the First Amendment’s reach is more limited in the context of school uniforms, so if the school has a general policy against certain kids of haircuts than it is possible that a court could uphold the schools’ action here. They shouldn’t, however. As the Fifth Circuit explained, school uniform policies are valid, at least in part, because they “pertain only to student attire during school hours and do not affect other means of communication.” News reports suggest that Gonzalez was required to get rid of his haircut, rather than simply being required to cover it up when he is in class. If this is right, than the school effectively stripped him of his First Amendment rights even when he is no longer attending school — since he can hardly switch his hair back once the school day ends.