Pugsley v. Sellmeyer

Pugsley v. Sellmeyer is the title of an Arkansas Supreme Court case that dealt with a disciplinary decision made by the school district of Knobel (Clay County) pertaining to a student being suspended for wearing talcum powder on her face. The case has been cited in other legal actions, namely in students’ rights lawsuits, and appears in various books focusing on these matters.

At the beginning of the 1921–22 academic year, Knobel High School principal N. E. Hicks informed a student assembly of new rules of conduct adopted by the district’s school board. One of the mandates prohibited female students from wearing low-necked dresses or immodest clothing, as well as banning cosmetics. Earlier in the day, senior Pearl Pugsley had applied talcum powder to her face before leaving for school. Hicks called Pugsley and two other female students to his office after learning they had used cosmetics, thereby violating the dress policy.

Hicks advised the girls to remove their facial applications or be sent home. Pugsley refused, attempted to return to school wearing the powder, and was denied admission. She asked her father, James Pugsley, for help. He contacted a local attorney, and the first-ever lawsuit against a school board in Arkansas was filed. At that time, the board comprised B. A. Scott, J. R. McCoy, and F. J. Sellmeyer.

The case was heard by Clay County district judge W. W. Bandy in Corning (Clay County). From the bench, Bandy stated that the district’s policy had little merit but refused to order Knobel High School to allow Pugsley to return to classes, noting that judges should not overrule school district policies and procedures as a matter of practice. On appeal, the state’s highest court agreed to hear Pugsley’s case.

In a decision dated April 9, 1923, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld Bandy’s ruling 2–1, concurring with his reasoning that judges should refrain from oversight of school district affairs, unless a violation of law occurred or a policy was deemed abusive. Dissenting judge Jesse C. Hart objected to the majority’s finding and wrote that he considered Knobel’s policy unnecessary and questioned the board’s authority to implement it. “Miss Pearl Pugsley was 18 years old on the 15th of August 1922. I think that a rule forbidding a girl pupil of her age from putting talcum powder on her face is so far unreasonable and beyond the exercise of discretion that the court should say that the board acted without authority in making and enforcing it,” Hart wrote in his dissent. “Useless laws diminish the authority of necessary ones. The tone of the majority opinion exemplifies the wisdom of this old proverb,” Hart concluded. Although Pugsley did not win reinstatement to the school, the board repealed the cosmetics ban soon after the case was settled.

The Pugsley case has been cited in numerous free speech and students’ rights cases, including a Massachusetts ruling in George Leonard, Jr. et al. v. School Committee of Attleboro et al. (1965), wherein the state’s Superior Court determined that George Leonard Jr. had been unjustly suspended from attending Attleboro High School by officials because of the length of his hair.

For additional information:
Childress, S. Anthony. “Pearl’s Wisdom: An Arkansas Teenager Goes Face-to-Face with School Officials for the Right to Wear Makeup and Becomes a Student Rights Icon.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 49 (December 2018): 191–193.

Hudson, David L., Jr. Let The Students Speak! A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

“Pearl Pugsley: ‘Joan of Arc’ of the Lipstick War.” Collections Blog, Old State House Museum, May 23, 2016. https://www.oldstatehouse.com/collectionsblog/pearl-pugsley-joan-of-arc-of-the-lipstick-war (accessed October 23, 2019).

Pugsley v. Sellmeyer, 158 Ark. 247, Arkansas Supreme Court (1923). https://www.ravellaw.com/opinions/ec1d0e8a24dc0564423e05ac5e05dff3 (accessed October 23, 2019).

Anthony Childress
Arkansas State University

Last Updated: 10/23/2019