On October 15, 2017, Governor Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 233, which would have guaranteed students the right to wear religious, ceremonial, or cultural adornments at school graduation ceremonies. In his veto message Governor Brown stated that “Students have a well-established right to express their views through symbolic acts under the state Education Code and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.” He went on to say in the event of a dispute, “those closest to the problem — principals and democratically elected school boards – are in the best position to make wise judgments.”
However, as noted in this blog in Appreciating Diversity in Graduation Ceremonies, those “wise judgments” often result in students being routinely prevented by school principals and school boards from wearing eagle feathers and other religious, ceremonial and cultural adornments at their graduation ceremonies. In many cases to actually enjoy this “well-established right”, students have had to sue their school districts to establish the validity of their symbols.
While it is a positive note that the Governor specifically recognized a student’s right to express their views under the State Education Code and the First Amendment, he failed to recognize that the acknowledgment of a major accomplishment with a traditional symbol of honor does not merely express a “view”, rather, it is the symbol of a culture (indigenous) succeeding in the context of another culture (public education). Refusing to allow such adornments by individual principals or school districts harkens back to assimilation policies, whether intentional or not. It would be helpful for the Governor’s Office to follow up its veto statement with an education to school districts regarding the nature and purpose of cultural adornments, lest they continue to lump such requests with protests, as potentially disruptive exercises of free speech.
We encourage native students to continue to push for their right to wear religious, cultural and ceremonial regalia and adornments at their graduation ceremonies and celebrate organizations such as the California Indian Legal Services that have fought, and will no doubt continue to fight, for this important right for graduating students.
Gabriela is an associate with the Native American Law Practice Group and citizen of the Cahuilla Band of Indians. She graduated from the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in 2015 and is a member of the State Bar of California.