School Bans Pro-Life T-Shirt - Seventh Grader Sues

Filed under: In The News, Religion & Spirituality

Did a school have the right to ban this T-shirt? Photo: American Life League

The mother of a California seventh-grader forced to remove her pro-life T-shirt is suing school administrators, claiming that her daughter's First Amendment rights were violated.

Anna Amador says the principal at McSwain Elementary School, a K-8 school in Merced, Calif. ordered her daughter to take off the T-shirt she wore to school on "National Pro-Life T-Shirt Day" in April 2008. The shirt displays two graphic photos of a fetus in the womb with the word "growing" under the images. A third box is black, and features the word "gone."

The complaint alleges that school principal Terrie Rohrer, assistant principal C.W. Smith and office clerk Martha Hernandez mistreated the child, who was allegedly ordered to throw away her breakfast, dragged from the cafeteria, berated and forced to take off her shirt. Amador says he daughter was publicly humiliated in front of her classmates, and that none of the child's fellow students had complained about the shirt.

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"Upon arriving at the main office, Defendant Hernandez, intentionally and without Plaintiff's consent, grabbed Plaintiff's arm and forcibly escorted her toward Smith's office, at all times maintaining a vice-like grip on Plaintiff's arm. Hernandez only released Plaintiff's arm after physically locating her in front of Smith and Defendant Rohrer...," reads the complaint. The document also states that the student was told never to wear the shirt to school again, and that the garment was not returned to her until the end of the school day.

Anthony N. DeMaria, attorney for the McSwain Union Elementary School District, says that the school has a strong defense, and it disputes several of Amador's allegations. In fact, the district sought to have the complaint thrown out, but a U.S. Eastern District Court judge ruled last month that all but one of Amador's claims could go forward.

However, district officials do not dispute that they ordered Amador's daughter to remove her shirt. The district asserts that the T-shirt violated the school's dress code, which forbids any clothing advertising "inappropriate subject matter" like tobacco, drug or alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, profanity or vulgarity. Amador says the school applies the dress code subjectively, and lawyers for the girl point out that the images on the pro-life shirt can be found in the school's own science textbooks.

Because the school houses grades K-8, Amador may not have as strong a case as she hopes. Precedents have been set in similar cases, where certain kinds of speech have been ruled as detrimental to young kids. However, William Becker, Amador's lawyer, asserts that the shirt did not sport inappropriate messages.

"The message of the T-shirt is that life is sacred," says Becker, a First Amendment attorney. "One would be very hard pressed to find anything wrong with that particular idea, except that some people do object to the political message."

As a journalist, I don't think speech of any kind -- no matter how distasteful -- should be censored. What if students who protested the Vietnam War had been censored? In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that students could not be stopped from wearing black arm bands to signal their dissent during that era. If what Amador alleges is true, the school district should, indeed, be held liable. Some might not like the shirt's political message, but squashing her right to speak -- or wear -- her opinion is a slippery slope, indeed.

That said, is it right for kids that age to act as billboards for causes they may or may not understand? It's true that children grow up faster these days, but I'm not all that comfortable with seventh-graders sporting messages like those worn by Amador's daughter when they don't really have the maturity to grasp all the nuances of such a polarizing issue.

Should kids wear politically charged T-shirts to school, and do officials have the right to ask them to remove them? Or is this the modern version of book-burning?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.