Rights undressed





As millions of high school and middle school students walked through the schoolhouse gate after summer vacation, many found their T-shirts were not so accepted by strict administrators and teachers.

Since late August, a cluster of students wearing T-shirts with messages deemed inappropriate by faculty or administrators have been reprimanded. Some First Amendment advocates are saying they do not remember when T-shirts have been a problem like this.

Nearly 30 students from Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., were suspended on Aug. 27 for a three-day period for wearing a T-shirt memorializing a fellow student who was murdered during the summer. Kelsey Penrod, a 17-year-old senior, said she did not expect to walk into school and be suspended for wearing something school officials deemed “gang-related.”

The shirt read “Julius RIP” on its front, with a photo of slain student Julius Robinson, 18, smiling. While Penrod had no agenda other than to memorialize a classmate, administrators claimed “RIP” was a gang symbol. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska got involved and eventually the district quietly removed all the suspensions and allowed the students to wear the shirt.

Robinson’s story is not the only T-shirt censorship story in the country. A dress code violation mishap occurred on Sept. 16 at Dos Palos High School in Dos Palos, Calif., after student Jake Shelly came to school wearing a tie-died American flag T-shirt with the message, “United States of America, Washington, D.C.” The new school vice principal deemed the shirt a violation of the dress code policy that prohibits “shirts/blouses that promote specific races, cultures, or ethnicities.”

For the rest of that school day, Shelly was forced to wear a bright yellow replacement shirt given by the high school principal that read “DCV: Dress Code Violator.” Vice Principal Heather Ruiz realized her mistake and apologized to Shelly and his parents. But soon after, local media reported the story and students protested by wearing red, white or blue to school the next day. The superintendent of the district also made a public apology, calling it a misunderstanding of a line in the dress code policy.

More cases have popped up across the country in which students were disciplined for what they called expressive apparel, including face paint, eyeliner and piercings. David Hudson, with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., is not sure why there has been a sudden spike of cases.

“I don’t know whether it’s just students are more cognizant of their First Amendment rights or it’s that school officials are stricter in enforcing dress codes and uniform policies,” Hudson said.

One thing Hudson is sure of: this is not the first time he’s heard of students being censored by school administrators for the messages printed on their shirts. He became interested in studying cases of T-shirt censorship in the early 1990s when he said it became continuous and caught his attention.

A federal district court in 1992 took up the case of a Norfolk, Va., student attending Blair Middle School, who caused an uproar when she wore a T-shirt of her favorite pop band New Kids on the Block. The shirt’s message: Drugs Suck!

The district court ruled in Broussard v. School Bd. of City of Norfolk that Kimberly Broussard’s T-shirt was not protected under the First Amendment and could be prohibited “based on reasonable forecast of disruption,” and that the “school’s determination that ‘suck’ was lewd, vulgar, or offensive was not merely prudish failure to distinguish vigorous from vulgar, but was (a) decision to regulate middle school children’s language into socially appropriate speech.”

But a less restrictive ruling was handed down in 1992 when the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals in Chandler v. McMinnville School Dist. ruled in favor of high school students who wore buttons reading: “I’m not listening scab”; “Do scabs bleed?”; “Scabs” with a line drawn through it; “Scab we will never forget”; “Students united for fair settlement”; and “We want our real teachers back.” The political messages protesting the school district’s decision to hire replacement workers during a teachers strike were deemed a disruption by a vice principal, and the two students involved were suspended. The court later ruled in favor of the students, upholding their right to express their political views on the buttons.

Hudson said courts nationwide have not had a consistent pattern on cases of free expression regarding T-shirts and other forms of expression and that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to make that decision.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said he is amazed that schools are fighting in court to defend what appear to be clear-cut violations of the First Amendment.

“There’s a lot of these cases where I don’t know why they are ending up in court,” Hiestand said. “In years gone by, school officials would have realized pretty quickly that this is not something the court is going to allow me to get away with.”

Hudson agreed, saying some administrators do not have a good understanding and grounding with the U.S. Constitution.

“I think they are in the mindset that courts should defer to school administrators and courts should not be in the business of being a grand superintendent,” he said.

Hudson advised students to challenge some of the dress code policies in their schools through peaceful civil disobedience such as wearing protest buttons or armbands. He said that some students, in order to gain more rights in their freedom to express their ideals on clothing might have to “go through some trials and tribulations.”


reports, Winter 2008-09