My looks got me in trouble. The ACLU got me out.

Charlie Meyerson
4 min readNov 28, 2016

I didn’t look the way a lot of other kids looked early in 1971.

I had big sideburns.

Really big sideburns.

Really ugly, really big sideburns.

My sideburns in high school

One of my teachers noted my sideburns extended well beyond the allowable limits of the “clean-shaven” clause of the dress code at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill. [1969 version appended below] She pressed the school’s dean of men to make me trim my facial hair.

So he told me (reluctantly, as I recall) that if I wouldn’t trim my sideburns, I’d be placed on “in-school suspension”—forced to do schoolwork in isolation until I complied.

I went home to talk it over with my recently widowed dad. He asked what I wanted to do.

I told him I wasn’t that attached to the sideburns, but I didn’t want to give up a right just to adhere to someone else’s notion of what I should look like. So I was ready to take the punishment on principle.

Dad was no fan of the sideburns. But he surprised me when he offered to call the Illinois office of the American Civil Liberties Union for its take.

I returned to Sandburg and began collecting schoolwork from my teachers, telling them I’d be out indefinitely beginning the following week, paying the penalty for refusing to be clean-shaven.

Meanwhile, Dad asked the ACLU hypothetically, “If my son’s suspended for violating the dress code, would that interest you?”

The answer: “Yes.”

So he called the Consolidated High School District 230 office and said something like “I understand you’re planning to suspend my son for a dress-code violation. If you do, you should know the ACLU might get involved.”

The response was quick: A suspension of my suspension. I’d get to keep the sideburns and stay in class as the school board grudgingly undertook a review of the dress code.

The board president said this about me to the student newspaper, The Aquila, in March: “He hasn’t helped anyone. He just proved that you can break laws [sic] and get away with it.”

Carl Sandburg High School Aquila, March 19, 1971

In April, after a few weeks during which my dad called the district several times to see how things were going, the school board did modify its dress code.

It removed specific guidelines for hair, instead banning only appearance that threatened the educational process or students’ health and safety.

Also: No shoes, no service.

Aquila, April 23, 1971

That’s the power of the ACLU and its consistent, principled stand for individual rights.

Just the possibility the ACLU would get involved was enough to prompt a school board to back down.

For 45 years, I’ve cherished the ACLU’s role in defense of my small personal liberty—along with its far more significant work defending others’ freedoms, exemplified by its simultaneous defense in the 1930s of the free-speech rights of blacks and the Ku Klux Klan; and by its 1977 defense of Nazis’ right to demonstrate in heavily Jewish Skokie, Ill. (The Onion wasn’t far off in its 2003 satire of the ACLU’s uncompromising commitment to free speech: “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.”)

The ACLU’s record of defending the rights of even the most reprehensible members of our society is exactly what gives me faith in its ability to fulfill its pledge to see President-elect Donald Trump in court if he follows through on plans to, in the ACLU’s words, “amass a deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban the entry of Muslims into our country and aggressively surveil them; punish women for accessing abortion; reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture; and change our nation’s libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.”

As we face the prospect of a Trump administration, under which the way one looks may play a greater role in the way one is treated, I encourage you to take a stand for civil liberties. And ugly sideburns.

If you’re in a position to support lobbying and advocacy in local and federal legislatures, you can contribute to or join the ACLU. If, like many professionals, you’re unable to play so direct a role in civic affairs, you can donate to the ACLU Foundation—which supports civil liberties litigation and education but is tax-exempt because it doesn’t lobby lawmakers.

P.S. The day the school board revised its dress code, I shaved off the big sideburns.

P.P.S. Later that spring, students elected me president of the Sandburg student council. There’s a parable there somewhere.

The Carl Sandburg High School dress code, 1969 (courtesy of emeritus teacher Jim Matiya; added to this post July 11, 2019)

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Charlie Meyerson

Proprietor, ChicagoPublicSquare.com; VP/Editorial & Development, Rivet Radio. Ex: Chicago Tribune, WGN-AM, WXRT-FM. R.I.P., WNUA-FM, FM News Chicago.