'Co-ed Naked Band' victory

Students win long-running state free expression case

MASSACHUSETTS — Advocates of free press rights for students gained ground in their fight this summer, thanks to the state supreme court’s interpretation of the state student free expression law.

On July 25, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of Jeffrey and Jonathon Pyle, two former South Hadley High School students who sued the local school committee, claiming the committee’s dress code violated their state free expression rights.

The Pyles sued after being repeatedly removed from school under the dress code for wearing t-shirts school officials considered offensive. The court agreed with the Pyles, however, that the school had no right to punish them because of state law protection. Under state law, the school only could have punished the Pyles if their actions caused a disruption at the school.

“[It is a] great decision, a sound and well-reasoned interpretation of the statute,” said Jeffrey Pyle, in response to the decision. His attorney, Bill Newman, agreed. “… The state judicial court has affirmed the sanctity of First Amendment values in Massachusetts,” Newman said. “The case teaches that schools must use censorship as a last resort, not as a first reaction.”

The controversy began in the spring of 1993, when Jeffrey, a drum major in the school band, wore a t-shirt to gym class reading “Co-ed Naked Band — Do It To the Rhythm.” The shirt was a Christmas gift from his mother, who thought the shirt was funny.

When Pyle’s gym teacher ordered him to turn the shirt inside out, he refused, saying he had a Constitutional right to wear it. His instructor disagreed and sent him to the principal. The incident began a crusade for Pyle and his younger brother Jonathan, who for two weeks afterward wore t-shirts that challenged the school’s dress code.

In response, the committee approved a new, more restrictive code, after which the Pyles went to the ACLU for help and filed suit, claiming the new dress code violated the First Amendment and the state’s student free expression law. The Pyle’s case presented the first challenge brought under the state free expression law, which became mandatory for all schools in the commonwealth in 1988.

The law says, “The right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.”

After being defeated in federal district court, the Pyles took their case to the court of appeals, which deferred the case to the state judicial court. The case now goes back to the court of appeals, where advocates of student free press rights are confident the high court’s decision will be upheld.

“I don’t see how the appeals court can go in a different direction,” said Nancy Murray of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “We haven’t had such good news in a long time.”

Murray said free expression advocates had been worried about the outcome of the case, given what she characterized as a current trend toward conservatism and the fact this is the first challenge under the state law.

Law and student media experts are optimistic about the impact the decision will have on the student press. Newman said the decision has a “significant precedential effect” on the student media and gives a clear endorsement of the right of students in the state to publish.

“The decision makes the law in Massachusetts the most unrestricted in the country regarding student freedom of speech,” Pyle said.

“I hope this case will encourage students to challenge censorship in schools,” he said. “Student rights are an important aspect of our democracy.”

Fall 1996, reports