NEW JERSEY — The parents of two students who protested a school uniform policy with buttons depicting the Hitler Youth have filed a lawsuit after their children were told they could no longer wear the button because it was offensive.
The button had the words “No School Uniforms” in a circle with a line slashed through them. In the background was an image of the Hitler Youth, which was an organized paramilitary movement of German boys during World War II.
Michael DePinto, a fifth-grade student at Public School 14, and Anthony LaRocco, a seventh-grade student at Woodrow Wilson School, wore the button in protest of the Bayonne School District’s mandatory uniform policy, which was instituted at the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year.
“The button is not sending a pro-Nazi message,” said the students’ lawyer, Karin White Morgen. “Reprimand of free speech is an erosion of basic civil rights.”
Court documents say DePinto had been wearing the button for six weeks without incident until Nov. 16, when the principal sent a letter to his parents. DePinto had also been wearing the required uniform.
The lawsuit also says LaRocco had not been wearing the uniform and that his parents were seeking a medical exemption because he is autistic. LaRocco wore the button once before a letter was sent to his parents, the lawsuit says.
Morgen said the letters sent home to both sets of parents did not mention any educational disruption caused by the button.
Both letters are identical, stating the badge is “objectionable” and “offensive” to Bayonne residents and it does not “constitute free speech.” It also said the students would be suspended if they wore the button to school again.
“We don’t have a problem with students protesting the uniform, but it is offensive to some of us,” Woodrow Wilson School Principal Catherine Quinn said.
“Offensive speech creates dialogue,” Morgen said. “That’s where new ideas come from.”
The lawsuit argues “Any offense taken by Bayonne residents to the message conveyed by the button is considered a “secondary effect.’ Such secondary effect cannot serve to prohibit speech.”
Robert Merryman, attorney for the school district, said both teachers and parents complained about the button.
Morgen said the student’s case is clear under the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which states that speech can only be censored if it causes a disruption to the school’s educational mission.
Merryman and Quinn both said the button did cause some disruption in the classroom.
Morgen said instead of attacking the students, this is an opportunity for teachers to teach lessons on World War II, the First Amendment and other related issues.
Morgen said both parties agreed that the students would not wear the button until a court decision is made, making a temporary restraining order to allow the students to wear the button unnecessary.
Oral arguments will be heard today before a district judge in Newark, N.J. on a preliminary injunction to prevent the school from disciplining the students.