DENVER, COLORADO – A Colorado school district’s decision to ban a student from wearing a sash at her graduation ceremony that honors her Mexican American heritage is unconstitutional, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and Greenberg Traurig, LLP, are suing Garfield County School District 16 on behalf of Naomi Peña Villasano after school officials denied Villasano’s request to wear a sash carrying the image of the U.S. and Mexican flags during her graduation ceremony on May 27.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, challenges the district’s decision as a violation of Villasano’s constitutionally protected right to free speech. MALDEF attorneys are also asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order to allow Villasano to wear the sash at the ceremony while the court considers all the claims.
“We live in an age of increasing threats to the First Amendment in public schools,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “Here, the district has wrongly concluded that it is allowed to discriminate against certain students and their heritage, while honoring that of other students; our Constitution does not permit such obvious discrimination.”
At issue is the district’s arbitrary rule that allows some students to wear, at graduation, regalia celebrating their heritage or service but bans others from displaying similar items on clothing.
In April, Villasano, a senior at Grand Valley High School, showed at school a photograph of the sash she hoped to wear at her graduation. Her advisor saw the sash and told Villasano that it was not permitted. The next week, the school principal spoke with Villasano’s family and confirmed to her sister-in-law that Villasano would not be allowed to wear the sash. The principal acknowledged the school’s practice was not reflected in any explicit written policy.
A few days later, Garfield County School District Superintendent Jennifer Baugh emailed Villasano, writing that the district didn’t permit flags on regalia because it didn’t want to open the door to a student wearing a Confederate flag pin or flag that would cause offense.
“I want to make this change happen not just for Latinos, but for all future graduates so that nobody else has to go through what I’ve been through,” Villasano said. “It is important for me to represent my culture not only for myself but for my family.”
The lawsuit also challenges the district’s rule as a violation of Colorado’s constitutional guarantee of free speech, and state law protecting the rights of students to display American flags.
“A graduation is supposed to be a moment of celebration, but Garfield County School District 16 is depriving Naomi of the opportunity to celebrate her Mexican American heritage during one of the most important moments of her life,” said Kenneth Parreno, a staff attorney at MALDEF. “The United States Constitution and Colorado law protect the rights of students to express their heritage, and schools cannot pick and choose what types of cultural heritage can be celebrated.”
Garfield’s superintendent, as well as the school board members and the Grand Valley High School principal, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit.
Garfield County School District 16 is located in Parachute, Colorado on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.
Read the complaint HERE.