This June, Wisconsin high school senior Mac Hamlin might not participate in his high school graduation because school administrators have not sanctioned his desire to don his marine dress blues during the ceremony — a deviation from the traditional cap and gown dress code.
The Hudson School District released an official message about the School’s rumored denial of Hamlin’s wish to wear the uniform. According to the release, the Principal has responded to individual inquiries about the dress code “based on long standing past practice and what the high school ceremony represents – a culminating successful accomplishment of required work during the high school years.” The release suggests if Hamlin were to make an official request, it would be considered in light of its affect on “all future graduation ceremonies.”
In 2010, a similar situation occurred in South Dakota when graduating senior Aloysius Dreaming Bear formally requested to wear traditional Lakota dress to his graduation ceremony. All ten members of his graduating class were Lakota, and nine of them formally supported Dreaming Bear’s request (with one somehow unaware of it), recognizing it would be symbolically powerful and meaningful to them as a community.
Nevertheless, the Principal and school board rejected Dreaming Bear’s request, saying they valued the universal meaning of the traditional cap and gown as “‘academic measures of recognition’ … symbolic of the unity of the 2010 graduating class.” Determined, Dreaming Bear sought a preliminary and permanent injunction against the school board and school district for violating his right to free speech under the 1st Amendment.
The District Judge rejected Dreaming Bear’s claim. Although noting Dreaming Bear’s admirable intentions, the Judge decided that the graduation ceremony was “not a public forum open to public expression of speech” as it is a school sponsored event. The Judge also noted that graduation was for the school and community as a whole and that the traditional cap and gown “is part of the very fabric of the academic experience throughout the nation.”
The Marine Corp’s response to Hamlin’s situation in Wisconsin reflects a similar nod of respect for the time-honored cap and gown. But Hamlin seems to take a similar stance as Dreaming Bear, telling reporters “If I’m not going to be able to wear my dress blues, I’m just not going to walk … It’s not about the clothes, it’s about the principle.”
If Marine Hamlin were to seek an injunction like the Lakota Warrior, it would be interesting to see how the court would consider the school’s refusal to sanction the student’s expression of free speech in the context of a military uniform. But it is unlikely Hamlin would need to take such action, because political pressure from the community has proven to be effective in the past for young servicemen and -women who want to receive their diplomas in their newly acquired uniforms.