Pyle v. School Committee of South Hadley

Decision Date25 July 1996
Citation667 N.E.2d 869,423 Mass. 283
Parties, 111 Ed. Law Rep. 481 Jeffrey J. PYLE & another 1 v. SCHOOL COMMITTEE OF SOUTH HADLEY & others. 2
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

William C. Newman, Northampton (John Reinstein, Boston, with him) for plaintiffs.

Harry L. Miles, Northampton (Edward J. Ryan, III, South Hadley, with him) for defendants.

Michael C. Hiestand, Arlington, VA, for Student Press Law Center, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Stephen J. Finnegan, Boston, for Massachussetts Association of School Committees, Inc., amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Deborah S. Steenland, Assistant Attorney General, Rhoda E. Schneider, Malden and Virginia A. Greiman, Wesley Hills, for Commissioner of Education & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Michael J. Long, Quincy, for Massachussetts Association of School Superintendents, Inc., amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Before LIACOS, C.J., and WILKINS, ABRAMS, LYNCH, O'CONNOR, GREANEY and FRIED, JJ.

LIACOS, Chief Justice.

The plaintiffs, Jeffrey and Jonathan Pyle, sued the school committee of South Hadley, the interim superintendent of South Hadley schools, and the interim principal of South Hadley High School (school) in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Federal District Court), claiming that the school's dress code violates their freedom of expression as protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and G.L. c. 71, § 82 (1994 ed.). A Federal District Court judge granted the plaintiffs' motion for an injunction against enforcement of that part of the dress code which prohibits the wearing of apparel that "harasses, intimidates, or demeans an individual or group of individuals because of sex, color, race, religion, handicap, national origin or sexual orientation." The judge upheld, however, that part of the dress code prohibiting students from wearing clothing that "[h]as comments, pictures, slogans, or designs that are obscene, profane, lewd or vulgar." Pyle v. South Hadley Sch. Comm., 861 F.Supp. 157, 168-170 (D.Mass.1994). The judge determined that G.L. c. 71, § 82, "has no relevance ... to the analysis of a school administrator's efforts to curb vulgarity and sexual innuendo." Id. at 168. The plaintiffs appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the ruling on the State law, deferred ruling on the Federal constitutional question, and certified the following question of State law to this court pursuant to S.J.C. Rule 1:03, § 3, 382 Mass. 700 (1981):

"Do high school students in public schools have the freedom under G.L. c. 71, § 82 to engage in non-school-sponsored expression that may reasonably be considered vulgar, but causes no disruption or disorder?"

Pyle v. South Hadley Sch. Comm., 55 F.3d 20, 22 (1st. Cir.1995). We answer the question certified in the affirmative. 3

General Laws c. 71, § 82, states in relevant part:

"The right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school. Freedom of expression shall include without limitation, the rights and responsibilities of students, collectively and individually, (a ) to express their views through speech and symbols, (b ) to write, publish and disseminate their views, (c ) to assemble peaceably on school property for the purpose of expressing their opinions. Any assembly planned by students during regularly scheduled school hours shall be held only at a time and place approved in advance by the school principal or his designee.... For the purposes of this section and sections eighty-three to eighty-five, inclusive, the word student shall mean any person attending a public secondary school in the commonwealth. The word school official shall mean any member or employee of the local school committee."

The above-quoted section is one of a series of statutes outlining students' rights and responsibilities. See G.L. c. 71, §§ 82-86 (1994 ed.). As originally written, § 82 was a "local option statute," applying only to cities and towns that expressly accepted it. G.L. c. 71, § 86, inserted by St.1974, c. 670. In 1988, without any change of wording, the section was amended and made applicable to all cities and towns within the Commonwealth. St.1988, c. 137. The remaining sections, which protect students' rights pertaining to dress, personal appearance, and discipline on matters unrelated to school-sponsored activities, remain applicable only to cities and towns that accept them. G.L. c. 71, § 86.

This court has not had the opportunity to interpret this section of the statute. Our primary duty is to interpret a statute in accordance with the intent of the Legislature. Sterilite Corp. v. Continental Casualty Co., 397 Mass. 837, 839 n. 3, 494 N.E.2d 1008 (1986), citing International Org. of Masters v. Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket S.S. Auth., 392 Mass. 811, 813, 467 N.E.2d 1331 (1984). Where the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, it is conclusive as to legislative intent. Boston Neighborhood Taxi Ass'n v. Department of Pub. Utils., 410 Mass. 686, 690, 575 N.E.2d 52 (1991). Sterilite Corp. v. Continental Casualty Co., supra at 839, 494 N.E.2d 1008. Hoffman v. Howmedica, Inc., 373 Mass. 32, 37, 364 N.E.2d 1215 (1977). Allen v. Commissioner of Corps. & Taxation, 272 Mass. 502, 508, 172 N.E. 643 (1930). Where the ordinary meaning of the statutory terms yields a workable result, we need not resort to extrinsic aids of interpretation such as legislative history. Bronstein v. Prudential Ins. Co., 390 Mass. 701, 704, 459 N.E.2d 772 (1984). We accord the words of the statute their ordinary meanings, however, with due regard to the statute's purposes. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., 397 Mass. 416, 420, 491 N.E.2d 1061 (1986). Rambert v. Commonwealth, 389 Mass. 771, 773, 452 N.E.2d 222 (1983). 2A Singer, Sutherland Statutory Construction §§ 46.01 et seq. (5th ed. & 1996 supp.). See G.L. c. 4, § 6, Third (1994 ed.).

The statute is unambiguous and must be construed as written. See Bronstein, supra. "The rights of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school." G.L. c. 71, § 82. The clear and unambiguous language protects the rights of the students limited only by the requirement that any expression be non-disruptive within the school. The language is mandatory. The students' rights include expression of views through speech and symbols, "without limitation." There is no room in the statute to construe an exception for arguably vulgar, lewd, or offensive language absent a showing of disruption within the school. 4

The parties agree that the authors of the bill intended to codify the First Amendment protection discussed in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969). The defendants, however, argue that more recent Supreme Court decisions in the area of students' First Amendment rights, see Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 106 S.Ct. 3159, 92 L.Ed.2d 549 (1986), and Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 108 S.Ct. 562, 98 L.Ed.2d 592 (1988), have narrowed and redefined the holding of Tinker to allow school administrators to regulate vulgar or indecent speech in school-sponsored expressive activities. This may be true, but there is no reason to believe that these cases, decided more than ten years after the original enactment of G.L. c. 71, § 82, in any way limit the protection granted under the statute. Our Legislature is free to grant greater rights to the citizens of this Commonwealth than would otherwise be protected...

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