MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Columns

April 7, 2010

Beyond the chiffon, proms can be speech battlegrounds

High school prom season is upon us — generally a pleasant mix of music and memories for teens, with maybe a bit of angst over getting the right date or dress.

But through the years this annual rite at times has also been an unlikely battleground over social issues, as in Mississippi recently, and over some of what the nation’s Founders called our inalienable rights — freedom of assembly and free speech.

In the 1920s and 1930s, proms as we know them began at elite Northeastern colleges, according to the Web site “Pretty for Prom” and several books and articles. In those years, proms were shaped by economic class distinctions: Kids from the wrong side of the tracks initially weren’t welcome. By World War II, prom vogue was more democratic.

A generation or two later, in the 1960s and ‘70s, even though many schools and proms had been integrated for years, news accounts show that racially mixed prom couples were the stuff of controversy.

Over the last 20 years, prom night has been affected by concerns over alcohol abuse, campaigns against drunk driving, and free-speech court battles like that at an eastern Kentucky school in 2004 involving a young woman’s wish to wear a homemade prom dress styled after the Confederate battle flag. When school officials barred her from wearing the dress, she said they had violated her freedom of speech — what’s called “expressive speech” — to proclaim her pride in her Southern heritage. “Her only dance for her senior prom was on the sidewalk to a song playing on the radio,” said her lawyer at the time. Her lawsuit was settled out of court in 2006.

The latest spat: A silk-and-chiffon hubbub that led a federal district judge to conclude on March 23 that Fulton, Miss., school officials violated the free speech of senior Constance McMillen when they canceled Itawamba Agricultural High School’s April 2 prom.

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