Beyond The Gown

Somebody got the idea to put “Hi Mom” in tape on the top of their mortar board, and everybody thought it was sweet, funny and acceptable. Before that, nobody questioned that students at graduation wore the traditional cap and gown, without any adornments for individuality or to express a message, whether that message was ethnic, political or personal. But that mortar board put graduates on the slippery slope and for Naomi Peña Villasano, the slide ended with a serape bearing the Mexican and American flags.

In the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, lawyers for the student, Naomi Peña Villasano, said she was told by the school principal’s secretary that she could not wear the sash because “allowing that regalia would ‘open too many doors.’”

It’s not that the school refused to allow any personalization. The new tradition of messages on mortar boards was still permitted, but the Colorado school district decided that a sash was a step too far.

“This is not an issue about a student’s ability to express her pride in her culture and heritage,” Jennifer Baugh, the superintendent, said in a statement. “She, and all her classmates, have an avenue for this expression by decorating their mortar boards on their gradation caps, including appropriate nationalistic endorsements.”

For the student, this serape was intended to convey a positive message, both for her and for other Mexican Americans. As it happened, she was given the sash by her brother and so that’s what she chose to wear to convey her message.

Lawyers for Ms. Villasano, 18, wrote in the suit that “the sash is a reminder that not all Mexican Americans, including her parents, have the opportunity to graduate from high school and to walk across a graduation stage.”

They added, “By wearing the sash, Naomi represents her family, her identity as a Mexican American and her culture during this important occasion.”

Would allowing Villasano to walk with her serape have caused harm? Sure, it might have given her a somewhat different appearance than her fellow graduates who wore only gowns, possibly with a variety of colored tassels that have become commonplace to reflect awards and accomplishments? Or was it merely a matter of the school district drawing a line that the use of mortar boards to send a message was as far as they were willing to let this go?

Ms. Villasano’s sister-in-law then called the superintendent, who said the district, Garfield County School District 16, did not allow the display of flags because “that would open the door to a student wearing a Confederate flag pin or another flag that would cause offense,” the suit said.

To be fair, if the school permitted Villasano to exercise her right to express herself by wearing the Mexican American sash, would they have any basis to forbid a sash of a confederate battle flag? What about armbands with Swastikas? Abhorrent and offensive as these may be, they are no less expressive than Villasano’s “200%” serape, and enjoy no less First Amendment protection. Either the school’s decision was content neutral, such that Villasano’s wearing a serape was forbidden or any student would be entitled to wear any adornment on or over their gown, even if it said “fuck the draft.”

At a hearing in response to an emergency motion seeking permission to wear the sash, Judge Nina Y. Wang* sided with the school district.

“Although it is true that many pieces of regalia that complement the cap and gown are worn at the graduate’s option, this court finds that, in the context of Grand Valley High School’s graduation ceremony, any such expression is subject to the school district’s discretion and supervision as a matter of course,” Judge Wang wrote in her ruling.

It’s unclear whether the court’s ruling gave the district unfettered discretion, given that other adornments were permitted, but the district argued that it had yet to formulate a policy in response to Villasano’s actions as to what, if anything, would be permissible, and until it did, Villasano should not be permitted to substitute her discretion for that of the district. Nonetheless, Judge Wang refused to enjoin the district, which had told Villasano that she would be barred from graduation at Grand Valley High School if she tried to wear the serapy.

She walked anyway.

Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano was allowed to walk across the stage at her high school graduation ceremony Saturday.

“Always stand up for what you believe in,” she said right after receiving her diploma. “Just like my senior quote.”

That stole was slightly covered around Peña Villasano’s neck by a thicker yellow sash Saturday. No administrators or teachers tried stopping her as she nabbed her diploma.

The district’s concern was that if Villasano was permitted to wear a sash, so too could any other student sending any other message of their choosing, including messages that would almost certainly cause outrage. And granted, until the issue was raised by Villasano, there might have been no reason for the district to have formulated an official policy on the issue.

One obvious distinction that the district, as well as the judge, could have drawn is that Villasano’s serape was distinguishable from, say, a confederate flag as it the latter would have been far more likely to cause disruption, invoking the Tinker v. Des Moines rule.

But where no valid neutral policy against free expression exists, and there is no legitimate concern that it will cause disruption, it’s hard to fathom why Naomi Peña Villasano wasn’t allowed to wear a sash to exercise her right to free speech. But in the finest American tradition of civil disobedience, Villasano “nabbed” her diploma without incident with her sash around her neck. Congratulations. Ms. Villasano. You have a bright future ahead of you.

*Judge Wang was a Biden appointee who received her commission in 2022.

11 thoughts on “Beyond The Gown

      1. Hal

        I was wondering if Howl would chime it w/ or the Dead doing Merle’s “Mama Tried” or (my choice) “Mexicali Blues”. Or perhaps, Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out for the Summer”.

        I’m waiting w/ bated breath…

      2. Howl

        Got back late last night after five wonderful days in central Maine.
        Our son married the most wonderful lady.
        A casual affair, ceremony on a lake shore, reception in a huge barn.
        It was perfect.
        We are all deliriously happy.

  1. Jeffrey M Gamso

    Our high school senior class didn’t want to wear caps and gowns at graduation, and the school agreed – no caps and gowns. (We also wanted to cancel the ceremony, but they refused that request.)

    Of course, that was 1966 in New York City – an age and a world – away.

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