Student T-Shirts Censored in Time of War

Anarchy T-shirtWhen a student showed up at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif., last week wearing a T-shirt that said  "Bomb Saddam" on one side and  "Attack Iraq" on the other, the vice principal in charge of discipline told him if he wore the shirt again, he would be suspended.

It is one incident among many in a new tide of censorship spreading beyond just schools. Last week, a mall in Guilderland, N.Y., banned T-shirts with the slogans  "Peace on Earth" and  "Give Peace a Chance." The Arkansas legislature is acting to ban  "I'm with Stupid" shirts. In West Virginia, a 15-year-old high school girl was suspended partly for defying an order to stop wearing a T-shirt sarcastically labeled,  "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America."

Principal Tony Parker of South View High School in Hope Mills, N.C., not only banned the T-shirts of rock and hip-hop stars Marilyn Manson, Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac Shakur, he further extended the ban to include all T-shirts with  "controversial" messages.

Much of the censorship stems from pressures on school administrators to uphold exacting campus safety standards in the jittery, post-Columbine era. Leland Vice Principal John Tavella said he made the suspension threat to safeguard other students. In an interview, Tavella said that because a number of Middle Eastern students attend the school, he feared that an Iraqi with a relative in Baghdad might start a fight over the shirt.

In the Leland case, school administrators missed an opportunity to educate students about their rights under the Constitution. Such an education, in fact, could help create a more peaceful campus.

Judge Abe Fortas' majority opinion for the Supreme Court in the landmark case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) provides guidance. The decision effectively balances the need for order in schools with student rights.

In December 1965, three junior high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

A lower court ruled that school authorities had acted reasonably based on their fears that the wearing of the armbands could cause a disturbance.

By banning T-shirts, administrators are missing a chance to educate students about how to react to contrary views.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the court held that wearing the armbands was  "silent, passive expression of opinion" and not disorderly, violent, disruptive of school processes or apt to interfere with the rights of other students.

The Court majority held that censorship was permissible when there was "substantial disruption," but that fear of such disturbances was not enough to justify suspending First Amendment rights.

Nearly 20 years after Tinker, in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a more conservative Supreme Court preserved the Tinker  "substantial disruption" standard for non-school-sponsored speech, such as  "Bomb Saddam" shirts.

Tavella said that at Leland High School, 65 percent of students go on to four-year colleges, and that the school's speech and debate team was ranked No. 1 in California. He said the school had its share of fights, but had fewer than other schools. Furthermore, he said there had been no demonstrations or fights over the Iraq war.

In the absence of a recent history of violence and disruption at Leland, it would be unreasonable for the school authorities to ban the T-shirt and violate the student's First Amendment rights. More important, by banning the shirt, administrators would be missing a chance to educate students about how to react to contrary views.

Leland High School officials and other school administrators across the country should seize such moments as opportunities to hold assemblies to discuss with students the importance of our country's history of dissent and debate.

Bush T-shirtAs President George W. Bush insists we are going to war in Iraq for freedom and democracy, would it not be ironic during these times to deny even once the foundation of freedom and democracy in our public schools?

To protect students, administrators need to zero in on those students who might be tempted to use violence to express their anger at opinions they find offensive.

It is typical of totalitarian societies that thugs beat up those expressing opinions contrary to those of the government. In a school society, it is the responsibility of the administration to protect those expressing contrary opinions that others may find distasteful.

Whatever we think of  "Bomb Saddam," in free, civilized and democratic society we respond with thoughtful discussion -- not violence, and not repression.

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