TENNESSEE — A student who was not allowed to wear her “Free the Jena Six” T-shirt to her high school filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the Rutherford County Board of Education and her school’s assistant principal, alleging they violated her First Amendment rights.
After attending a march in Nashville on the morning of Sept. 20 in support of the “Jena Six” — the group of black students in Louisiana initially charged with attempted murder for beating up one white student — Dani Super, 16, headed back to Smyrna High School wearing the same shirt demonstrators wore that morning. Because she was arriving late, her mother accompanied her inside to sign her in.
According to the complaint, as Dani Super and her mother, Norma Super, entered the building, Assistant Principal Jolene Watson told Dani Super that she could not wear the shirt because it “could cause a problem.”
Norma Super said she was shocked by their reaction.
“There were no alcohol, drugs or profanity on the shirt,” she said. “And it wasn’t anything disruptive. They cannot prohibit the shirts just because of the message.”
But district officials said they were only trying to prevent a disruption. Before school started on Sept. 20, a group of students were making racial slurs in the hallway and the assistant principal had to break it up. This incident coincided with a national day of support for the Jena Six on which people were urged to wear black clothing and stand up for the Louisiana students.
“Tensions were high and we made the decision that students wearing shirts that expressed a clear opinion, like ‘Free the Jena Six,’ wouldn’t be able to wear those,” said James Evans, Rutherford County Schools’ spokesman. “Of course we support free expression, but we also need to maintain a safe environment.”
The Supers’ attorney, W. Alan Alder, is a civil rights attorney in Nashville. He said the school does not have the authority to censor shirts based only on a fear that something might happen.
“It must be substantially more than that,” he said, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 Supreme Court case that ruled public schools may only censor student speech if they can reasonably forecast it will cause a material disruption or invade the rights of others.
The lawsuit asks for an injunction to allow students to wear shirts that say “Free the Jena Six” to school. The Supers also are asking for a non-specified amount in damages and attorney fees.
“This isn’t about money,” Alder said. “My client really just wants to be able to wear the shirt.”
School officials told about 20 students to remove clothing with specific messages regarding the Jena Six, Evans said.
“Several students did wear black clothing,” Evans said. “This was passive and would not cause a disruption.”
Dani Super said she wasn’t trying to cause a disruption.
“I wanted to support the boys held in jail,” she said. “I should be able to wear a shirt like that.”
For More Information:
Super v. Rutherford County Bd. of Educ., No. 07-0992 (M.D. Tenn. filed Oct. 4, 2007).