Some officials silence 'Jena Six' demonstrations


T-shirts banned in several schools, sparking federal suit in Tennessee





Several students around the country felt the chill of censorship as they commented on or showed their support for the “Jena Six” — the name given to the six black students in Louisiana who activists point to as symbols of racial injustice in the legal system.

Administrators at high schools and colleges banned T-shirts and photos with messages about the Jena Six, and at least one newspaper theft is believed to have occurred in response to a column written about the students.

One of the censorship incidents resulted in a federal lawsuit, filed in early October in Tennessee.

Dani Super, 16, filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights against the Rutherford County Board of Education and Smyrna High School’s assistant principal, after administrators told her she was not allowed to wear her “Free the Jena Six” T-shirt to school.

Super wore her shirt on Sept. 20, a day of national support for the Jena Six. Leaders in the black community, including the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, planned rallies and marches to coincide with a hearing for one of the students. The Jena Six all were originally charged with attempted murder for attacking a white student who was knocked unconscious and spent three hours in a hospital. Many believe the charges were excessive and based on the students’ race.

Smyrna’s principal was only trying to prevent a disruption, said James Evans, Rutherford County Schools’ spokesman. Before school started on Sept. 20, a group of students were making racial slurs in the hallway and the assistant principal had to break it up, Evans said.

“Tensions were high and we made the decision that students wearing shirts that expressed a clear opinion, like ‘Free the Jena Six,’ wouldn’t be able to wear those,” Evans said.

The Supers’ attorney, W. Alan Alder, is a civil rights attorney in Nashville. He said the school does not have the authority to censor shirts based only on a fear that something might happen.

“It must be substantially more than that,” he said, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 Supreme Court case that ruled public schools may only censor student speech if they can reasonably forecast it will cause a material and substantial disruption or invade the rights of others.

The lawsuit asks for an injunction to allow students to wear shirts that say “Free the Jena Six” to school. The Supers also are asking for a non-specified amount in damages and attorney fees.


reports, Winter 2007-08