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Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education

Forget ‘rithmatic… Here, we’re all about readin’, writin’, and rootin’ for the home team!

When five-year-old Cooper Barton showed up to kindergarten one day wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, the die-hard Wolverines fan had no idea that his shirt—navy, with “The Big House” in bright gold letters—violated a section of the district's dress code prohibiting “Clothing bearing the names or emblems of all professional and collegiate athletic teams (with the exception of Oklahoma colleges and universities).” Upon discovering the offending t-shirt, the principal of Wilson Elementary instructed the kindergartener to go behind a tree on the playground and turn his shirt inside-out.

Cooper Barton wearing University of Michigan t-shirt

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment permits public school officials a significant degree of discretion in regulating the expression of students during school hours, such discretion is not absolute.
School officials are not permitted, for example, to impose policies that purposely discriminate on the basis of viewpoint. In a letter to the Thomas Jefferson Center, the Oklahoma City Board of Education defended the policy, stating its purpose had nothing to do with promoting Oklahoma colleges over their counterparts in other states. Rather, the policy was born out of a concern for student safety. “It is a fact of life that gangs and gang colors are an unfortunate fact in America today… The intent of the policy was to address this concern… At the time of conception, no gangs reportedly employed the primary colors of our two state schools.”

The eradication of gang violence in Oklahoma schools is without question a laudable goal, but it does not fully explain this provision of the school district's dress code. For one, the policy says nothing about permissible colors, only “names” and “emblems.” Furthermore, Oklahoma has 27—not two—“state schools” with a color palate rivaling a jumbo box of Crayolas.

Public reaction to the incident was swift and overwhelming. Perhaps realizing that its treatment of Cooper Barton was likely unconstitutional, the school board quickly suspended enforcement of its “home teams only” policy. A task force was convened to develop a revised dress code, but as of April 2013—eight months after the incident took place—no action has been taken and the policy remains on the books.

As for Cooper, he became something of a folk hero among Wolverine fans. When the University of Michigan heard about his ordeal, the Barton family was invited to a home football game where they were honored on the field at halftime before more than 100,000 fans. The school also presented Cooper with a custom-made two-sided Michigan t-shirt—just in case he ever had to turn his shirt inside-out again.

For instituting a dress code policy that plainly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint—permitting Oklahoma-themed apparel while banning all others, and enforcing that policy against a 5-year-old child, the Oklahoma City Public School Board of Education earns a 2013 Jefferson Muzzle.

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38

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