Decided: March 25, 2013
From 2002 until 2006 Candice Hardwick was a student who first attended Latta Middle School and then attended Latta High School in Latta, South Carolina. During this time, Hardwick repeatedly wore to school various shirts that displayed the Confederate flag. School officials routinely forced Hardwick to change out of these shirts and prohibited her from wearing this type of clothing. In one incident, Hardwick was briefly suspended for refusing to change out of a shirt that displayed a picture of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag. Hardwick also wore—and was subsequently forced to remove—so-called “protest shirts”—shirts that displayed words and imagery in protest of the school’s dress code policy.
After several unsuccessful attempts to persuade officials from the Latta School District to reconsider the schools’ position against Hardwick’s apparel, Hardwick’s parents (on behalf of Hardwick) filed a lawsuit against the two schools’ principals and the school district’s board of trustees. Hardwick claimed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the schools’ actions had violated her First Amendment right to free speech and expression. In addition, Hardwick alleged that the schools’ dress code policies were overbroad and vague and that their enforcement was in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on each of Hardwick’s claims.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first considered the First Amendment claim. The court stated that there was clear evidence in the record indicating that “school officials could reasonably forecast that all of these Confederate flag shirts ‘would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.’” The court discussed the history and demographics of the town of Latta, including past racial tension and incidents specifically associated with the Confederate flag. Although the community and its schools had made “progress in race relations, [they were] not immune from incidents of racial conflict.” And because of the “vastly different views among students about the meaning of the Confederate flag,” the schools were justified in determining that a prohibition on Confederate flag shirts was necessary to prevent a disruption. Thus, the court held that the Latta school officials did not violate Hardwick’s First Amendment right.
With respect to Hardwick’s due process claim, the court examined the language of the school district’s dress code, which provided in part: “‘Generally, student dress is considered appropriate as long as it does not distract others, interfere with the instructional programs, or otherwise cause disruption.’” Moreover, the dress code proscribes “‘[s]hirts with obscene/derogatory sayings’” and clothing that is “‘deemed to be offensive.’” According to the Fourth Circuit, the school district’s dress code was neither overbroad nor vague. The court stated that the dress code policy was clear enough for a student to be able to “conform her speech to the required standards,” further pointing out that Hardwick was explicitly aware that Confederate flag apparel was not permitted under the terms of the dress code. Thus, the court held that Hardwick’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process had not been violated.
-John C. Bruton, III