VERMONT — The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a t-shirt depicting George W. Bush as a drug and alcohol abuser should not have been censored by a Vermont High School in 2004.
Thirteen-year-old Zachary Guiles wore his t-shirt, which featured a picture of President Bush and the words “Chicken Hawk-In-Chief” along with pictures and explanations of cocaine, drug paraphernalia and another picture of the president holding a martini glass, several times before a parent complained to administration in May 2004 and he was suspended.
Bush has acknowledged his troubles with drinking in the past, giving up alcohol more than 20 years ago, according to the Associated Press. Rumors of drug use have never been substantiated.
School administrators allowed Guiles to return to school wearing the shirt — as long as he taped over the images of the martini glass and drugs — while leaving the accompanying words exposed, arguing the political message was still intact. Guiles decided to sue; and claimed his right to free expression had been violated. The August 2004 district court’s ruling held that Guiles’ free speech rights covered the words on the t-shirt, but not the images.
The court of appeals disagreed, applying the 1969 ruling Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said a public school could not preventstudents from wearing a black armband to express their discontent with the Vietnam War.
The court ruled in 1969 that students’ First Amendment protections could only be limited if their expression will cause “substantial disruption” of school activities.
The shirt “did not cause any disruption or confrontation in the school,” the court found, and was a form of protected speech.
“The pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey,” wrote Judge Richard Cardamone in the court’s unanimous opinion. “By covering them defendants diluted Guiles’s message, blunting its force and impact.”
David Williams, one of Guiles’ lawyers, said the act was politically motivated, noting that Guiles had worn the shirt for months before and that the censorship only occurred when another classmate’s parent, who was a volunteer at the school, complained to school officials.
Williams said he believes his client was wearing anti-drug and alcohol symbols, and simply wanted to point out that Bush “shouldn’t be president.”
“They were anti-drug and anti-alcohol because Zach’s message was that President Bush drank too much alcohol and used drugs, which disqualified him from being a public servant,” Williams said.
Williams said Guiles is now a sophomore at a music high school in Michigan, and was “very pleased” with the ruling.
“This is the ruling we were looking for,” Williams said. “We didn’t think that the school had an educational reason to censor Zach’s speech.”
The court remanded the ruling to the district court to continue further proceedings, affirming that Guiles’ disciplinary record should be expunged.