SPLC urges appeals court to uphold free speech ruling in breast-cancer bracelet case

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit advocate representing the interests of the student media nationwide, urged a federal appeals court today to uphold a lower court’s ruling that wearing an “I ? Boobies” breast-cancer awareness bracelet to school is an act of legally protected expression.

The SPLC filed the friend-of-the-court (“amicus”) brief with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on behalf of two Easton Area School District (“EASD”) middle school students who were suspended for wearing the bracelets in defiance of a ban imposed by school administrators. The students filed suit challenging the discipline as a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The lower court found in May that the bracelets – which resemble the familiar “Livestrong” cancer awareness bracelets, and carry the slogan, “I ? Boobies (Keep a Breast)” – were neither disruptive of school nor “lewd,” as the school district’s attorneys had argued. The judge noted that students had worn the bracelets to school every day for weeks without incident, and that the school had itself used the word “boobies” in its official announcement of the ban.

In the amicus brief, prepared with the assistance of volunteer counsel from the Philadelphia office of Dechert LLP, the SPLC argues: “The students in this case wanted nothing more than to be participants in the discussion of a substantive public issue, as do students everywhere. The rule advanced by the EASD would turn the public schools into a place of ‘zero tolerance’ for any term that subjectively strikes the wrong note with a school administrator. If this becomes the governing standard, students everywhere will censor themselves unnecessarily for fear of stepping across some blurry line of ‘appropriateness.’”

The brief urges the Court of Appeals to reject the school district’s argument that administrators should be able to ban any speech they subjectively decide is offensive or inappropriate: “No government official, no matter how well-intentioned, has ever been entrusted with a blank check of authority over the “appropriateness” of citizens’ expression, and none ever should be. This case is about protecting public school students against the overzealous application of discipline that, when misapplied to innocent conduct—as it was here—can unjustly impose limits on students’ future educational opportunities.”

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said the case has the potential for significant spillover impact affecting the rights of students to publish news and editorial commentary.

“The underlying principle in this case is that context matters. A word used in advancing a social cause – on a bracelet that everyone understands is meant to convey support for a social cause – must be understood in its context, just as a student writing a newspaper article about guns is doing something very different than a student threatening to bring guns to school,” LoMonte said. “If the school district has its way, even the words ‘breast cancer’ themselves may become taboo in the public schools, so that students can never be full participants in discussing the causes that concern them.”

The lead attorney representing the SPLC is Wayne I. Pollock of Dechert LLP, a member of the SPLC’s Attorney Referral Network.

The students are represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which filed its brief Aug. 26. No date has been scheduled for the court to hear or decide the case.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.



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