High School Graduation and Individual Expression

Either it's a public forum or it's not.

Two related stories flagged by YahooNews.

CNN (“Judge rules Colorado student cannot wear a sash with Mexican and American flags during graduation“):

A federal judge has ruled for a Colorado school district after a student sued to wear a sash reflecting the Mexican and American flags at graduation Saturday.

The lawsuit said the district violated Naomi Peña Villasano’s “constitutionally protected right to free speech.” Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorneys, representing Villasano, also sought a temporary restraining order to allow Villasano to wear the sash at the May 27 ceremony while the court considered their claims.

But Judge Nina Y. Wang on Friday denied that motion.

According to the order, Garfield County School District 16, in the western part of the state, had indicated that sashes or cords worn during graduation typically represent membership in a nationally recognized organization; other distinctions such as class honors; future military service; or “regalia that is part of a Native American or Pacific Islander tribe.” Additionally, the school district’s policy says “(i)t is appropriate” to decorate a cap with the “flag of a country as recognized by the United Nations,” the order said.

In her ruling, Wang said that a student wearing regalia at graduation sends a message that the school approves, so it “qualifies as school-sponsored speech, at least for the duration of the ceremony.” The district insisted that standardized attire was required to create a message of unity, a concern that the judge deemed legitimate.

LEX18 (“High school graduate upset he couldn’t wear military sash on stage“):

A Jessamine County family is upset after they say the school would not allow their graduate to wear a sash marking his military commitment. The district says the sash didn’t fit the graduation requirements. That graduate says he hopes to see a change.

During his four years in the ROTC program at East Jessamine High School, Jason Music said he found something.

“It gave me some kind of purpose, something to do in life, because I was a little lost, didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Music.

Now, after graduating, he’s joining the Navy.

“I’m going in to be an aviation machinist and work on airplanes. I’m going to work on the engines of them. I’ll get assigned to a squadron and I’ll go around the world and do that on the boats,” he said.

For graduation, he said his recruiter gave him a special sash to wear when he walked across the stage.

“There were kids who got to wear pins and different things for their job choices and so I felt like it would only be right that I get to wear mine and show it off. I didn’t feel like it would be much of a distraction,” he said.

His family says administrators said he couldn’t wear it and took it from him until the ceremony was over.

“I was beyond upset over it. I was livid,” said Music’s mother, Helen Kouns.

Kouns said she couldn’t understand why he couldn’t wear the sash.

“There’s nothing inappropriate about that. It’s an honor to wear that sash. They should want them to wear that. They should be proud of them,” she said.

It seems perfectly reasonable, indeed appropriate, for schools to limit what students wear during graduation exercises to put the focus on the occasion rather than the individuals. There’s a reason students all dress in the same regalia, after all, and schools have long even prescribed what to wear under the gown (dark slacks or dresses, etc.).

There’s no 1st Amendment right to alter the garb. Graduation ceremonies aren’t public expression forums and the students have the rest of their lives to express themselves.

I would personally limit additional accouterments to those representing high achievement in school—valedictorians, honor societies, and the like. The problem comes when some personal expressions are allowed and others are not. And we seem to have that in both cases.

In the Colorado case, it’s acceptable to wear “regalia that is part of a Native American or Pacific Islander tribe.” My strong guess, considering how prevalent it has become everywhere, is that Black students are permitted to wear a kente cloth stole. In that case, it should be a free-for-all for other students to wear comparable devices symbolizing their heritage.* The Mexican-American stole the young lady wanted to wear is professionally designed and perfectly appropriate in this context. While I agree with the judge that she doesn’t have a 1st Amendment right to do so, I would think she has a 14th Amendment right to equal protection.

The wearing of stoles for those who have enlisted into the military or been selected to attend a military academy has become popular in recent years. Indeed, the Colorado district allows it. I’m a bit surprised that the Kentucky district doesn’t. I’m fine with it either way, since joining the Navy has little bearing on one’s high school career. The student claims, however, that other students were allowed to “wear pins and different things for their job choice.” Were they simply less obtrusive and he would have been allowed to wear a pin but not the stole?** Were Black graduates allowed to wear the kente stole? Again, it seems to me that, once individual expression of that sort is permitted, then it should essentially be a free-for-all.


*The obvious caveat is that schools should have the right to ban expressions that would be considered wildly offensive. A Confederate battle flag stole and a kente stole are not comparable.

**This is literally the only report I could find on the controversy, so details are sparse.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. de stijl says:

    I love that the navy kid said that he felt lost and did not know his purpose in life before signing up for junior ROTC at presumably age 14.

    AGE 14!

    Welcome to the club, kid. That feeling might last your entire life. There is very likely chance you are going to fall into a job niche and stick with that for decades because that is easier and way less of a hassle than changing career focus.

    Most folks I met who knew what they wanted to be at age 18 either never did that or bailed after a few years.

    Life is sometimes mercurial and fluid and in other cases slow and almost geologic. A random job interview at age 23 might change your entire future professional course in life.

    I am who I am because I took a temp job when I was 24 and that kicked off a slow, tectonic process. I was only going to do that for a few months and wound up a vice president. The job title isn’t that impressive – major banks hand out vice presidency job titles like Halloween candy if you stick around long enough. You ain’t going nowhere. You are going to get promoted to one level beyond your capabilities and stagnate.

    At age 14 I wanted to be Johnny Rotten or David Byrne.

  2. de stijl says:

    A related story from earlier this week about a trans girl who wanted to wear a dress and heels to her her graduation.

    It was in one of those states and the school told her she needed to dress like a traditional boy or no graduation ceremony for her.

    She refused to comply and bailed and good on her for that decision. Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me. That made me very proud of her for her decision and the line she drew.

    I barely remember my high school graduation. It was distinctly unimportant to me. I know it happened, but I don’t remember it – the event itself – at all. I remember going to parties after and getting drunk with my friends. I remember being glad I was Salutatorian not Valedictorian or else I would have to write and deliver a speech. Dodged a bullet there.

  3. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: In my view, gender identity should be a protected class in civil-rights law. That would override a school’s right to decide how its students ought to dress, on that particular matter. The school would still be allowed to impose a dress code on students, it would just require them to accommodate a student’s choice of gender expression.

  4. Tony W says:

    @Kylopod: Or better yet, if a dress code is required (for some reason) it is a generic dress code that does not distinguish between gender norms.

    Everyone wears black pants, and a white shirt for example.

  5. de stijl says:

    @Tony W:

    Maybe an orange jumpsuit?

  6. CSK says:

    @de stijl:

    In my view, that would be the perfect outfit for any public school.

  7. Chip Daniels says:

    What I think is interesting this analysis is the implicit acknowledgement that “free speech” is actually a loosely defined boundary of negotiated norms as opposed to some hard and obvious feature of the natural landscape.

  8. JKB says:

    @de stijl:

    Is 14 really so alarming? I took jROTC the first year it was voluntary for high school sophomores (15 yr olds). Prior to that the mandatory “indoctrination” was part of the peacetime Draft. Even opening it up to 9th graders, I doubt jROTC is as much fun as it was. We marched, right out in the open, wore uniforms one day a week and shot firearms, right in the lower level of the gym. Not to mention the trip to the gun range where we all shot M16s and got burst on the M60. The horror!

  9. de stijl says:


    Your point? I don’t even know what you are on about. Did I criticize jROTC?

    I think you missed my text entirely and read your own personal bullshit into it. Did I criticize jROTC? No.

    Did I bring up indoctrination? No. You did, oddly enough. What caused you to bring that up? Why did you go there?

    14 is alarming. It is the age we are most likely to make really bad decisions. We are transitioning from childhood into adulthood are our hormones have just kicked in and our brains are exploding with new (to us) and radical (to us) ideas.

    No one should make a life choice at age 14. We are at our most stupid and vulnerable. We need space and time to mature.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Chip Daniels: It’s always been thus and I don’t know how it could be otherwise. If every time and place were open for everyone who happened to be there to express themselves without limit we’d never get anything done. Who would want to go to a graduation ceremony or any other celebratory event under that condition? How would schools even hold classes?

  11. Mr. Prosser says:

    Naomi Pena Villasano wore her stole anyway, fist-bumped the principal and got her diploma. Viva! https://coloradosun.com/2023/05/27/parachute-student-mexican-sash-graduation-ceremony/

  12. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    Are you always reflexively authoritarian?

  13. de stijl says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    Good on her!

  14. Gustopher says:

    I’m not going to parse the legal rights, but the administrators really are a bunch of shitheads trying to crush what little joy this tedious ceremony has for the kids.

    Oh no, the sash has two flags rather than the prescribed one. An a clueless kid is proud about his decision to help fix planes to bomb brown people — bombing brown people is the American pastime!

    Was there some massive disruption the previous year that they are over-reacting to? “Let’s go to court to prevent someone from tastefully honoring their heritage” seems like a pretty stupid thought to have and then act on.

  15. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    (I’m sorry, but I can’t resist. 🙁 ) Who gets to decide that Confederate Battle Flag Stoles aren’t “devices symbolizing their heritage?” I don’t understand why people want to identify that kind of a heritage, myself, but apparently 40-50% of the population disagrees with me (or will vote for whoever is against taxes and regulations that don’t protect them [and no one else]).

  16. Gustopher says:

    @just nutha ignint cracker: See, I’m of the opposite bent — I like it when racists make themselves really visible. It’s like brightly colored caterpillars warning people away.

    And, if we’re lucky, the graduation photos will follow them through life and be a nice limiting factor at some point.

    I might spitefully want them to provide lineage to someone who literally served under that flag, just to be a nuisance, and insist on the historically accurate shape (square, I believe, or more square).

  17. de stijl says:


    I prefer it when people I never want to associate with or be around announce themselves with symbols. It saves considerable time and effort.

  18. CSK says:

    I’ve always thought that making a big deal of graduating from high school was the province only of those for whom it would always be THE highlight of their lives. FFS, you’re supposed to graduate from high school.

  19. Chip Daniels says:

    @James Joyner:
    One of the difficulties with “free speech” discussions is the unwillingness for people to confront honestly, and own, the decisions of what speech in which circumstances CAN, or SHOULD be suppressed or even punished.

    Part of this is the romantic notion of “free speech”, which causes many people to sidestep and pretend that our preferred suppression of speech isn’t really suppression at all because, [insert contrived argument here].
    Which becomes very dangerous because it allows us to imagine that our preferred boundaries are just axiomatically true, naturally occurring and obvious, without any need of being interrogated or investigated.
    Or worse, it allows for people to play the “hypocrisy” argument where a legitimate suppression of speech is equated with an illegitimate one. Like, say, the idea that banning Holocaust denials is no different than banning advocacy of tolerance.

    I think its healthier in the long run to admit that our mutually negotiated boundaries are imperfect, but better than not having any.

  20. de stijl says:

    A 17 or 18 year old kid fixated on the Confederacy is eminently salvageable.

    Give him or her two years of college and all that entails, and chances are fairly high they now think of themselves as quasi-Marxist or Utilitarian or a budding entrepreneur or whatever.

    You need time and space to figure out who you are. And under mommy and daddy’s thumb ain’t it. Young adulthood is a time of change.

  21. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: I’m no longer confident that graduation photos following you forever matters. White power is coming back into style.

  22. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    A 17 or 18 year old kid fixated on the Confederacy is eminently salvageable

    Having met and talked with a number of them, I don’t share your rosy outlook. But I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.

  23. de stijl says:

    @Flat Earth Luddite:

    Think about how much about you changed between 17 and 25.

    Socializing, experiencing, just hanging around folks different from you changes you a lot. Puts a new spin on things. Expands your perspective. Always has. Probably always will.

  24. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @de stijl:

    Given that age 22-25 I was incarcerated in a medium security prison, my personal perspective is encapsulated in this bit*

    * Full disclosure, a fellow inmate once explained why he’d killed 5 people. His answer was because “that’s all the people there was in the house.”

  25. de stijl says:

    @Flat Earth Luddite:

    You had a wider life experience than I have.

    But were you not changed by it?

    I have never been arrested – not once. And I should have been dozens of times. And mostly between the ages of 20 and 25. Lucky, mostly. Twice because I was white and spoke calmly and was polite and respectful.

    Cops took pity on me and told me to go home and stop acting like an idiot.