Judge backs school's ban of 'Islam is of the Devil' shirts

FLORIDA — AFlorida school board’s dress code did not violate students’ rights by barringthem from wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Islam is of the Devil” on schoolgrounds, a federal judge ruled Sept. 30, labeling the shirts a “disruption.”

The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit against the AlachuaCounty School Board in 2009 after incidents involving students and parents intwo families tied to the controversial Dove World Outreach Center church inGainesville, Fla.

The church entered the national consciousness the followingyear when its pastor, Dr. Terry Jones, planned an “International Burn a KoranDay” for Sept. 11, 2010.

U.S. District Judge Stephan P. Mickle granted the schoolboard’s motion for summary judgment last month, ruling that the message “Islamis of the Devil” is “not conducive to civil discourse on religious issues; noris it appropriate for school generally.”

Principals at four schools — at the elementary, middle andhigh school level — informed the students, who ranged in age from fifth gradeto 12th grade, they could not wear the shirts on school grounds at thebeginning of the 2009-2010 school year. The plaintiffs also were removed from ahigh school football game Oct. 2, 2009, for wearing the shirts.

At the time, the school district’s dress code policyrequired students to “dress in a way that does not disrupt or distract from theeducational process … [and] is not offensive to others or inappropriate atschool and at school sponsored events.”

School officials had “reasonable fear that the t-shirts werelikely to interrupt school activities,” Mickle ruled.

Citing the 1988 HazelwoodSchool District v. Kuhlmeier case, Mickle justified his decision by rulingthat school facilities are not public forums, and speech within thesefacilities can be regulated for “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

In wedding the Hazelwoodlanguage with that of the landmark 1969 Tinkerv. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling, Mickle said theSupreme Court has consistently held that the First Amendment rights of studentsare not as far-reaching as the rights of adults in public forums.

“Had Plaintiffs chosen to wear the t-shirts in a publicforum, likely they would be well within their First Amendment rights to do so,”the judge’s order reads. “Plaintiffs, however, used the public schools as aplatform to gain attention. A school is not a public forum.”

SPLC Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein argues, however, thatthe judge’s interpretation of the Hazelwooddecision effectively “obliterates” the ruling in Tinker, which limited schools’ ability to curb student speech outof fear of disruption.

“If you apply a forum test to school facilities to determineif you can wear T-shirts or arm bands, then Tinkercomes out the other way,” Goldstein said. “It should have been fairly clear tothe court it was making a mistake. It shows how deep in the woods most courtsare on student speech issues. They just don’t know up from down.”

The school district views the ruling as an affirmation ofits role to protect students, said Jackie Johnson, a spokeswoman for thedistrict.

“We were certainly very happy with the judge’s ruling, whichclearly confirmed our opinion that we had the right to prevent one group ofstudents from attacking another group of students, whether that’s physically oron the back of a T-shirt,” Johnson said.

Since the case arose, the Alachua County School Board hasadopted a school-uniform policy, which took effect before the 2010-2011 schoolyear. That code, however, was something that had been discussed for years; itwas not a response to the lawsuit, Johnson said.

Derek Newton, a spokesman for the ACLU of Florida, said theorganization had not yet reached a decision as to whether to appeal theruling.