Mich. court rules student’s anti-Bush shirt is protected speech

MICHIGAN —- A federal judge ruled Tuesday thata Dearborn High School student has the right to wear a T-shirt with a picture ofPresident George W. Bush’s face and the caption ”InternationalTerrorist” on school grounds. ”This case reaffirmsstudents’ rights to speak out and emphasizes that school districts will beliable if they attempt to unconstitutionally censor students,” saidMichael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union ofMichigan.The ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit in March on behalf ofBretton Barber, 17, claiming the Dearborn Public Schools violated his FirstAmendment rights when administrators asked him to conceal his T-shirt. Thehearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction was held Sept. 17. In thelawsuit, the ACLU and Barber are seeking unspecified damages and attorneys fees.U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Duggan granted the preliminary injunctionstating that the school district failed to show evidence the ”T-shirtcreated any disturbance or disruption.”Duggan also rejected theschool district’s claim that school grounds are an inappropriate venue forpolitical speech.”In fact, as [the courts] have emphasized,students benefit when school officials provide an environment where they canopenly express their diverging viewpoints and when they learn to tolerate theopinions of others,” Duggan wrote. Representatives from theschool district did not return phone calls seeking comment.The casebegan Feb. 17 when Barber, then 16, wore the T-shirt to his English class topresent a ”compare and contrast” essay. Barber chose to compareBush to Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader. School administrators askedhim turn the T-shirt inside out, take it off or go home. Barber wenthome.Steinberg said Tuesday’s ruling follows the SupremeCourt’s 1969 landmark decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Community SchoolDistrict. In that decision, the court ruled that public school students,”do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech orexpression at the schoolhouse gates.” Steinberg added thatDuggan’s ruling that students benefit from openly expressing theiropinions is important to high school students across thecountry.”It’s saying students may express themselves onmatters of public importance,” Steinberg said.

Barber v. Dearborn Public Schools and Judith Coebly, Case No. 03-CV-71222-DT (E.D. Mich. Sept. 30, 2003).