SAN FRANCISCO -- Requiring public school students to wear polo shirts emblazoned with such messages as “Tomorrow’s Leaders” potentially infringes on their rights to free speech, a unanimous federal appeals court decided Friday.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit by parents of two elementary school children whose uniform contained the leadership message.

The court said the uniform policy must be justified under a stringent legal test that is difficult to meet.

The school’s “policy compels speech because it mandates the written motto, 'Tomorrow’s Leaders,'  on the uniform shirts,” wrote Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen, an Obama appointee, who was joined by two judges selected by Republican presidents.

The panel further ruled that a uniform exemption for students who wore the attire of national youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts on meeting days also had to be closely scrutinized because such uniforms could potentially violate the 1st Amendment.

“The exemption explicitly favors the uniforms of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts over all other uniforms … and favors the uniforms of 'nationally recognized' youth organizations over those of locally or regionally recognized youth organizations,” the court said.

The case involved a uniform required by the Roy Gomm Elementary School in Reno, Nev., but the ruling would affect required public school attire in California and other Western states.

The panel ordered the district court to determine whether the written motto and the exemption for scouts were  "a narrowly tailored means of serving a compelling state interest."

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maura.dolan@latimes.com
Twitter: @mauradolan