SPLC urges appeals court to uphold free speech ruling in breast-cancer bracelet case

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit advocaterepresenting the interests of the student media nationwide, urged a federalappeals court today to uphold a lower court’s ruling that wearing an “I ? Boobies” breast-cancer awareness braceletto school is an act of legally protected expression.

The SPLC filed the friend-of-the-court (“amicus”) brief with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on behalf of two Easton Area SchoolDistrict (“EASD”) middle school students who were suspended for wearing thebracelets in defiance of a ban imposed by school administrators. The studentsfiled suit challenging the discipline as a violation of their First Amendmentrights.

The lower court found in May that the bracelets – whichresemble the familiar “Livestrong” cancer awareness bracelets, and carry theslogan, “I ? Boobies (Keep a Breast)” –were neither disruptive of school nor “lewd,” as the school district’sattorneys had argued. The judge noted that students had worn the bracelets toschool every day for weeks without incident, and that the school had itself usedthe word “boobies” in its official announcement of the ban.

In the amicusbrief, prepared with the assistance of volunteer counsel from the Philadelphiaoffice of Dechert LLP, the SPLC argues: “The students in this case wantednothing more than to be participants in the discussion of a substantive publicissue, as do students everywhere. Therule advanced by the EASD would turn the public schools into a place of ‘zerotolerance’ for any term that subjectively strikes the wrong note with a schooladministrator. If this becomes thegoverning standard, students everywhere will censor themselves unnecessarilyfor fear of stepping across some blurry line of ‘appropriateness.’”

The brief urges the Court of Appeals to reject the schooldistrict’s argument that administrators should be able to ban any speech theysubjectively decide is offensive or inappropriate: “No government official, nomatter how well-intentioned, has ever been entrusted with a blank check ofauthority over the “appropriateness” of citizens’ expression, and none evershould be. This case is about protectingpublic school students against the overzealous application of discipline that,when misapplied to innocent conduct—as it was here—can unjustly impose limitson students’ future educational opportunities.”

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC,said the case has the potential for significant spillover impact affecting therights of students to publish news and editorial commentary.

“The underlying principle in this case is that contextmatters. A word used in advancing a social cause – on a bracelet that everyoneunderstands is meant to convey support for a social cause – must be understoodin its context, just as a student writing a newspaper article about guns is doingsomething very different than a student threatening to bring guns to school,”LoMonte said. “If the school district has its way, even the words ‘breastcancer’ themselves may become taboo in the public schools, so that students cannever be full participants in discussing the causes that concern them.”

The lead attorney representing the SPLC is Wayne I. Pollockof Dechert LLP, a member of the SPLC’s Attorney Referral Network.

The students are represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania,which filed its brief Aug. 26. No date has been scheduled for the court to hearor decide the case.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted toeducating high school and college journalists about the rights andresponsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the studentnews media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information andeducational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a widevariety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.