August had his school pictures earlier this week and he took a decent amount of time figuring out what he wanted to wear, even brushing his hair to the point where he thought it looked best, at least for a seven-year-old. As we talked about school pictures later at bedtime, I asked him if he had picked his nose or crossed his eyes. He laughed, and then said—with a surprising amount of excitement in his eyes—could I?
Probably not. Well, you could pick your nose or you could stick your tongue out at the camera, but it doesn’t mean the school is required to publish your school picture in the yearbook. And the school probably would be on solid legal grounds if it sent your kid to the principal’s office for, well, being disrespectful. But what about August’s right of free expression—his desire to express how he feels about himself or his school picture by, uh, picking his nose? Nice try.
As I discussed in the post about wearing Halloween costumes to school, courts have generally given public schools “wide leeway in maintaining control over what students say, do, or wear.” August could express himself in school pictures by picking his nose (and we could pay thirty bucks for a huge 5 x 7 and 18 wallet size photos of his wonderful sense of free expression), but schools generally can limit such behavior and could even take disciplinary action for the alleged disrespectful conduct.
This isn’t like the case of Ceara Sturgis, the Mississippi high school student who only wished to wear a tuxedo in her senior picture rather than the customary “drape” that the school required girls to wear. When she had the picture taken with a tuxedo anyway and the school subsequently left her completely out of the yearbook, the local ACLU took the case and filed a gender discrimination action against the school district, stating that the district’s “efforts to enforce . . . gender-based norms are harmful to kids, including LGBT kids, who might not be comfortable with traditional gender norms.” Sturgis ultimately prevailed, though with a settlement from the school that required it to post her picture with other graduating seniors, to change its yearbook picture policy, and to agree to abide by the law.
Although I could see boys and girls (and parents) debating the issue, the act of picking your nose is not exactly a hard-hitting challenge to gender-based norms. In my mind—and I could be wrong about this—picking your nose is gender-neutral. Given no other constitutional or legal basis to honor a nose-picker’s free expression, it’s certainly constitutional and legal for a school to exclude such a photo from the yearbook and, though only slightly less stable on legal grounds, send the kid to the office for being disrespectful. My advice to August: pick a different issue to express yourself.