The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter today to the Jefferson County Board of Education in Alabama demanding that the board repeal a policy banning male students from wearing earrings or potentially face a federal lawsuit.
Hunter Mahaffey, a junior at Hueytown High School near Birmingham, contacted the SPLC after school officials instructed him to remove his simple stud earrings soon after he had his ears pierced. A district policy that "ear jewelry may be worn by females only" was cited.
"Banning our client from wearing earrings because he is male violates his constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom from sex discrimination," said Sam Wolfe, staff attorney for the SPLC. "Hunter is fighting a policy that only serves to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes and stifle protected expression."
The SPLC's letter warns that if the school board doesn't repeal the policy during its next meeting on May 10, Hunter will have no choice but to consider all his legal remedies, including a federal lawsuit.
Two months ago, the SPLC sent a letter to the school board requesting resolution of the dispute. Through its attorney, the school board replied that it was satisfied with the policy and declined to repeal it.
"I'm fighting to break down this gender barrier that says only females can wear earrings," said Hunter. "I believe that every student, regardless of gender, should be treated equally. The First Amendment protects my right to wear earrings to show disagreement with my school district's overly narrow definition of what a male must look like."
By wearing earrings, the SPLC said, Hunter is challenging gender stereotypes about what it means to be male. Outdated notions of the "ideal man" foist an unrealistic model that few can authentically sustain and contributes to a culture where men and boys who do not fit rigid molds are punished through words and, sometimes, violence.
The SPLC's letter states that under the U.S. Supreme Court's Tinker decision, it cannot censor Hunter's protected expression because the board cannot show that the speech will "substantially and materially disrupt school activities."
The SPLC also cited a Mississippi federal court decision upholding a female student's right to wear a tuxedo to communicate the viewpoint that women should not be constrained to traditionally "female" attire. In that case, McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, the court held that such expression is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the SPLC, "banning males from wearing earrings — but not females — is sex discrimination." The policy is invalid under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it discriminates on the basis of sex, lacks any exceedingly persuasive justification, and rests on an archaic sex stereotype that earrings are appropriate only for females.
"We call on the school board to repeal this policy without further delay," Wolfe said. "Students' constitutional rights don't stop when they walk through the schoolhouse doors and we will fiercely advocate for those rights."