In the fall of 1970, Tyler Junior College instituted grooming guidlines for students, prohibiting long hair styles on male students. Student opposition to the new policy initiated a federal court case and set a legal precedent still in effect today.
Robert “Bobby” Hutchison sat with his friends at the Tiki, a burger stand across the street from TJC, when he heard the news.
“Hey, they’re telling us over there we can’t register until we get haircuts.”
Sporting a shaggy cut himself, Hutchison decided to investigate.
“I wanted to find out what the hell they were talking about so I just walked across the street and I walked in the front door and Dr. Potter was standing there,” said Hutchison. “He picked up this sheet of paper and handed it to me and said, ‘You will not be allowed to enroll at Tyler Junior College unless you conform to these regulations.'”
Angered by the new rule, Hutchison ripped up the paper. “I think this sounds to me like this is illegal. How can you do this? I will see you in court,” said Hutchison having no idea if he had a case.
A legal circus
Joe R. Lansdale learned of the new rules when he tried to register for classes and was turned away. Reaching the parking lot, Lansdale found flyers requesting student representatives for a class action case backed by the Amercian Civil Liberties Union.
Lansdale, Hutchison and a third student, Paul Harders, signed their names to the lawsuit and armed with their ACLU lawyer Bill Kugle, took TJC and its lawyers to court, contesting the constitutionality of the grooming code.
“What was supposed to have been my first day of college education was spent in federal court,” said Hutchison.
Like night and day, the two sides of the courtroom contrasted starkly, physically illustrating the differences between the opposing views.
“Behind us were all of these hippies and liberal types – preachers and teachers and artists and musicians… all of them wearing bright colors,” while across the aisle sat “very stern, conservative, white men in drab black and gray suits with white shirts and dark ties,” said Hutchison.
A community divided
The issue polarized the TJC campus as well as the entire Tyler community.
Hutchison’s parents were at the Petroleum Club, a social club in downtown Tyler, when “their friends literally got up and walked away from the table where they were sitting because they did not want to be seen with them. They socially snubbed them just because their kid was part of this thing,” said Hutchison.
The local newspaper took a stand as well, stating in a staff editorial “Too often on today’s college campuses it seems that a large number of students are pre-occupied with cultivation of shaggy hair, beards and generally sloppy appearance to the extent that academic activity ranks, at best, no higher than second in importance.”
After Judge William Wayne Justice found in favor of the students and ruled the grooming policy illegal, the students involved still faced opposition on campus. However, not all faculty agreed with the college adminstration’s stance.
“Some of the teachers were on our side,” said Lansdale. “A number of them thought we were absolutely right.”
“They would look both directions, up and down the hall twice, to make sure there wasn’t another teacher or supervisor or administrator anywhere within their sightline and then they’d whisper to me ‘I’m really glad you did what you did – but don’t tell anyone I told you that,'” said Hutchison.
A lasting impression
In addition to setting a legal precedent still cited in academic policies, the case left an indelible mark on those involved.
“To this day, I think back on it and it just seems humorous to me in a sort of sad kind of way,” said Lansdale. “It was never about hair itself, it was about the right to wear your hair that way.”