Somehow I doubt Britney Spears ever fancied herself a threat to the Bill of Rights.
She probably never had time to learn anything about it, given the fact she spent her entire childhood performing in one venue or another. And I am sure she never really intended to do any harm; in fact, she is probably unaware she caused any harm at all.
But Britney Spears may be the greatest threat to the First Amendment in schools since the post-Columbine witch hunts. The threat does not lie in her singing. (How can it, given the fact she is a chronic lip-syncher during televised performances?) Neither does it lie in the disparity between her words (“I am a virgin with only God to thank for my success”) and her on-stage persona (scantily-clad sex kitten), though the latter has much to do with the problems she has indirectly created.
No, the threat lies in her self-proclaimed status as a role model for young people. There is nothing wrong with children aspiring to be pop stars. But with this dream unattainable for almost everyone, girls of all ages have taken to imitating Britney the only way they truly can: by dressing like her. Though most young people can recognize that this skin-bearing and cosmetics-abusing have shown little effect on society as a whole — simply dressing like a prostitute does not a prostitute make — the change has brought horrified school administrators and school boards into conflict with the U.S. Constitution itself.
The conflict lies in the implementation of stricter dress codes and school uniforms, a trend that re-emerged in the early ’90s, spiked after the Columbine tragedy and is now a national phenomenon among school districts eager to curb “immorality” and follow the advice of the U.S. Department of Education. The number of public schools requiring uniforms quadrupled from 1994 to 1996 (the latest data available from the National Center of Education Statistics), before Britney and Columbine. Less-scientific feature articles suggest the trend has only increased in the years since, with dress codes expanded to cover such Britney-induced items as halter and spaghetti-strap tops.
Administrative attempts to shrink students’ First Amendment rights are nothing new. Since the landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, in which the court ruled students do not “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” the courts have slowly reneged on this guarantee through suspicionless drug tests, dog searches and zero-tolerance policies.
But strict dress codes and uniforms are even more troubling, since the Tinker case dealt with that very issue. In the case, three students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that these suspensions were in violation of the students’ First Amendment right to free expression, since the armbands, while carrying symbolic meaning, did not serve to disrupt the functioning of the school or take away the rights of any other students.
Now, no one will confuse the wearing of halter tops with the moral opposition to the Vietnam War. The clothes of the Britney Generation carry little symbolic meaning (other than to scream, “I conform!”), and they consist of little more material than the two-inch-wide armbands worn by the protesters. Even the majority opinion of the court in the case gave exception to schools wishing to regulate skirt length.
But just as constitutional compromises for the Drug War have led to fewer rights for everyone, the danger in the dress codes lies in merely opening the door. With regulation that combats administrators’ fears of children dressing like adults to express their conformity, the risk of suppressing free expression when it actually means something grows exponentially.
But it is doubtful Britney sees any of this going on. She is not about to change the manner of dressing that made her a millionaire, nor sing something like “Oops! I Indirectly Helped Trample the First Amendment Again!”
Perhaps, as schools continue to ban the very clothes she made popular, Britney will take on the role of a revolutionary and urge her fans to lash out at the authority that refuses to let them worship her. She could turn the tables on policy-makers and make it a debate on symbolic speech in schools, a test of the Tinker doctrine. Britney could urge social and political consciousness among young people, spark activism and spur intellectual debate on the place of youth within the framework of the Bill of Rights. But after watching her at the MTV Video Music Awards last week, strutting around with a snake while lip-synching to “I’m a Slave 4 U,” I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.