By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 9

In this column:

  • Does a Boy Have a Right to Wear a Skirt to School?
  • Can You be Fired for Expressing Your Opinions?

Does a Boy Have a Right to Wear a Skirt to School?

I'm a writer for our school newspaper, and recently a situation has been brought to our attention that we plan on making into a story. A few days ago, a boy wore a skirt over his pants and was asked to remove it by the principal because it was a distraction to education. He disagreed with the principal's reason, so two days later, he and some of his friends went to a local thrift shop and purchased about 30 skirts. He passed them out in the morning to males and females, but only the males were asked to remove them. It's become a very controversial topic among our peers, and I'd like to know the basic facts about student's rights before I write my story. If you could please inform me as to whether what the principal did was justified, and Minnesota's dress code/gender discrimination laws, I would greatly appreciate it.

The Commissioner says:

The state Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, and that prohibition applies to education. That means that a school, like an employer, cannot treat someone adversely because of his or her sex. But no law can spell out exactly what is or is not illegal in any given situation; over time, court decisions help to make clear how the law should be applied. Courts must frequently balance society's competing, legitimate interests, and courts have ruled that schools can set dress codes and make other rules to ensure an environment that promotes learning. It sounds to me as if the wearing of a skirt by a male student could well be a distraction to education, and in my view, your principal's action does not violate the Human Rights Act.

Schools sometimes have more freedom to regulate certain kinds of behavior than employers do because there is an overriding need to ensure that students can learn in a safe, positive environment. But a male wearing a dress would not likely be welcomed in most workplaces, either, and courts have ruled that employers, too, can require attire and grooming that society considers gender-appropriate.

Both schools and employers can be guilty of discrimination if they make rules that truly cause harm to a particular "protected class." If someone needed to dress in a particular way because it was required by their religion, for example, an employer or a school might need to accommodate their religious beliefs. But a boy doesn't need to wear a skirt, and your principal is probably right to give him a "dressing down."

Can You be Fired for Expressing Your Opinions?

In March the company I worked for hired a new general manager, who became my immediate supervisor. During June, July, and August, I was asked a few times by the senior company officials if I had any concerns or issues. I voiced my opinion honestly about my supervisor's ability to analyze, understand, comprehend, and retain information necessary for the growth of the company. I did not feel that his leadership skills were up to par.

I have just learned I am being terminated. The reasons given were vague -- something about not meeting their future qualifications for the position -- so I have asked for a reason in writing. I have had satisfactory performance appraisals for two years, and not once in the past year or so have I been reprimanded for anything. I feel I have been retaliated against for voicing an opinion. There are a few of us here who feel the company doesn't respect a women's opinion or voice in this business. I ask myself: is this the reason my opinion was not wanted -- because I'm not a male? What are my options now? Do I have any recourse?

The Commissioner says:

You have a right to be given a truthful reason why you were terminated (under Minnesota Statute 181.933), and your employer must provide this reason within 10 working days of your request (provided that you made the request in writing within 15 working days following the end of your employment).

Unfortunately, you may not have a lot of other rights in your situation. Generally, Minnesota is an "at-will" employment state, in which either the employer or the employee can terminate the relationship at any time, for any reason. It would have been nice if your employer had been more accepting of your views, but an employer is not necessarily required to welcome your honest opinions.

You ask yourself if your opinions would have received more respect if you were male. A question is not a basis for filing a charge of discrimination, nor is a suspicion that things might have been different had you been a man. Are there other female employees who have faced termination in circumstances similar to yours? Are there men who were treated better in similar situations? Those are the kind of questions we need to ask before taking a charge of discrimination. If you have specific reasons to believe that you were treated adversely because of your gender, please contact us again and tell us why you think so.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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