Student Wins First Amendment Case

Ken AshfordConstitution, EducationLeave a Comment

I don’t know why, but I’m always drawn to First Amendment cases involving public schools.  This story warmed my heart:

Court Sides With Student In Bush T-Shirt Flap

(AP) Vermont schoolboy was within his rights to wear a T-shirt depicting George W. Bush as a chicken and accusing him of being a former alcohol and cocaine abuser, an appeals court ruled.

Zachary Guiles’ school violated the First Amendment when it ordered him to cover parts of the shirt, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said Wednesday.

Guiles was a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Williamstown Middle High School in Williamstown, Vt., in May 2004 when he wore the shirt, which he had bought at an anti-war rally, to classes once a week for two months. Complaints from a fellow student and her mother who had different political views caused school officials to take a closer look.

Although teachers had told the complaining student that the shirt was political speech and protected by the Constitution, the mother complained to a student support specialist, who decided images of drugs and alcohol violated the school’s dress code, the appeals court said.

The front of the shirt had Bush’s name and the words "Chicken-Hawk-In-Chief" beneath it. Below the words was a large picture of the president’s head, wearing a helmet, superimposed on the body of a chicken.

To one side of the president on the T-shirt, three lines of cocaine, a razor blade and a straw appear. Elsewhere on the shirt, the president is shown holding a martini glass with an olive in it.

After the school official ordered Guiles to turn the shirt inside out, tape over the shirt’s images of drugs and alcohol or change shirts, he returned to school another day with duct tape covering the offending images and "Censored" scrawled on the tape.

After Guiles, who was suspended for one day because of the shirt, sued school officials in U.S. District Court in Vermont, a judge found that his First Amendment rights were violated but that the school could censor some images on the shirt.

The appeals court said the school had no right to censor any part of the shirt.

"The pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey, accentuating the anti-drug (and anti-Bush) message," the appeals court wrote. "By covering them defendants diluted Guiles’s message, blunting its force and impact."

Having read the opinion, it should be stressed that the only controversy with the shirt was the fact that it depicted drugs, not the anti-Bush sentiment.