Griffith v. Caney Valley Pub. Sch., No. 15-273 (N.D.Okla. Jan. 5, 2016)
Abstract: A federal district court in Oklahoma has ruled that a Native American student, who was prohibited from wearing an eagle feather on her graduation cap, failed to state a claim for violation of her First Amendment free speech rights. It also concluded that she failed to state a valid First Amendment free exercise of religion claim.
The court rejected the student’s assertion that the school district had created a limited public forum in the students’ graduation attire, thus making her expression private student speech. Instead, it held that the expression in question was school-sponsored speech and the school officials had enunciated a legitimate pedagogical concern for prohibiting decorations on graduation caps.
The court found the free exercise claim failed because the student had not presented any facts showing that the “no cap decoration” policy was applied or enforced against her for religious reasons.
Facts/Issues: Hayden Griffith, who is Native American, was a graduating high school senior. As a part of her tribe’s traditional cultural practices, a tribal elder presented her with an eagle feather. The feather was given to her in recognition of her academic success, graduation from high school, and passage into adulthood. According to Griffith, in her culture, when a person is ceremonially given an eagle feather for a certain occasion, it is often seen as a sign of disrespect or dishonor to fail to wear the feather for that occasion. Further, according to Griffith’s religious beliefs, when an eagle feather is worn, it must be worn on the head and cannot be dominated by another object that is also being worn on the head.
Griffith asked for permission to the wear the feather on her graduation cap. The school denied her request, explaining that students were not allowed to wear decorations on their caps at graduation. The school did, however, give Griffith the option of wearing the feather on a necklace, clipped to her hair, or held in her hand.
As a result of the school’s decision, Griffith was unable to wear the eagle feather on her cap during her graduation ceremony. Although she was given the option of wearing the feather elsewhere, besides her cap, such alternatives violated her religious beliefs. According to Griffith, by not wearing the eagle feather during her graduation, she disrespected the feather, the tribal elder who presented it to her, and God.
Griffith filed suit in federal district court against Caney Valley Public Schools (CVPS) approximately a week before graduation. She alleged that CVPS’ policy violated her free speech and free exercise of religion rights and sought a preliminary injunction allowing her to wear the feather during the graduation ceremony. The court denied her request a day before graduation.
Griffith subsequently amended her legal complaint, seeking a declaratory judgment and nominal damages. CVPS filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the ground that Griffith had failed to state a valid cause of action.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court granted CVPS’ motion to dismiss the suit. Addressing Griffith’s free speech claim, it stated that restrictions on student speech in public schools are judged under one of two standards. The first standard was spelled out in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which indicates that school officials can restrict “private student speech,” i.e., “student expression that is unconnected to any school-sponsored activity,” only if it reasonably concludes that such expression will “substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students.” The other standard, which is enunciated in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), allows school officials to regulate “student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as [its] actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
CVPS contended that student graduation attire is school-sponsored speech and its policy barring decorations on graduation caps is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. Griffith, on the other hand, argued that the school had created a limited public forum in graduation attire, thus making wearing decorations, such as her eagle feather, on graduation caps private student speech subject to the Tinker standard. According to Griffith, other students were allowed to wear sashes and stoles marking school-related achievements and activities. Therefore, the school’s denial of her request amounted to viewpoint discrimination in violation of her First Amendment speech rights.
The district court rejected Griffith’s arguments, finding them “unpersuasive.” It stated:
Here, the school has not created a forum (of any kind) for student expression on their graduation caps. Indeed, as Griffith herself acknowledges, the school does not allow students any form of personal expression on their graduation caps during the commencement ceremony. The fact that students are allowed to wear sashes and stoles in recognition of certain school-related achievements and activities does not alter this conclusion. Such items are allowed only for academic achievement or participation in school-sponsored activities and, crucially, are not worn over or affixed to the graduation cap.
The district court found that to the extent the graduation attire constituted expressive activity it is not expression that school officials merely tolerate, but rather it is expression they actively promote and control. It concluded, “Given the degree of control the school exercised over this event, observers reasonably could have perceived the expressions made through the students’ graduation regalia as bearing the imprimatur of the school.”
Turning to the question of whether the policy was reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern, the court concluded it was. It pointed out the policy “promotes unity, discipline, and respect for authority, and allows the school to reserve special recognition for student achievement or participation in school-related activities.” It also noted the policy “avoids the controversy that could potentially arise from allowing each individual graduating student to wear his or her own religious, cultural, or familial emblems of personal success or achievement.”
Regarding Griffith’s free exercise of religion claim, the court stressed that “[n]eutral rules of general applicability normally do not raise free exercise concerns even if they incidentally burden a particular religious practice or belief.” It asserted that laws that are neutral and generally applicable will survive constitutional challenge provided they are rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.
The district court agreed with CVPS that the policy was both neutral and generally applicable. It found Griffith had failed to allege any facts showing that the school’s “no cap decoration” policy applies or was enforced against her for religious reasons. It also indicated that “any suggestion that the defendants harbored a discriminatory motive is belied by the fact that the school made efforts to accommodate Griffith’s religious practice.”
The court likewise rejected Griffith’s assertion that the fact the “no cap decoration” rule was not part of a formal written policy or procedure demonstrated that it was not generally applicable. It emphasized the policy had been communicated in writing to the graduation class. It said, “[the fact that] the policy was not memorialized in a more ‘formal’ document, without more, does not give rise to a plausible inference of disparate treatment.”
Griffith v. Caney Valley Pub. Sch., No. 15-273 (N.D.Okla. Jan. 5, 2016)
[Editor’s Note: In June 2015, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press article in Yahoo News reporting that Clovis Unified School District (CUSD) agreed to allow Christian Titman (who is Native American) to wear an eagle feather to his high school graduation, ending a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NoCal). Titman’s attorneys argued that the student’s rights to freedom of expression and religion in the state constitution were being violated.]