PENNSYLVANIA — Nearly four years of litigation has ended after the Easton Area School District agreed to pay $385,000 to attorneys who represented two students who fought the district for the right to wear breast cancer awareness bracelets.
Sara Mullen, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the district agreed to pay $150,000 within 30 days, $100,000 by Jan. 1, 2015, and $135,000 by July 1 in the settlement agreement.
“We already won the students’ right to wear the bracelets,” said Mary Catherine Roper, the lead attorney for the case. “This is the kind of thing we’d of course rather settle than litigate because this isn’t what we’re mainly here for.”
“The big picture is that what this case did was really clarify students’ rights to talk about important issues in school without the administration second guessing what language they’re using,” she said.
The Sept. 29 settlement comes after middle school students Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez and their parents filed a complaint in November 2010 in federal court, which alleged the Easton Area School District violated the students’ free expression rights when it banned the Keep A Breast Foundation’s “I (heart) Boobies!” bracelets.
The students said their principal gave them an in-school suspension and barred them from school dances for 30 days when they continued to wear the bracelets. The suit, which did not seek damages, asked the judge to lift the ban on the bracelets and allow the students to attend school events.
In April 2011, Circuit Court Judge D. Brooks Smith ruled that the bracelets were protected expression under the First Amendment and issued a preliminary injunction that allowed the students to wear the bracelets. The ruling said the bracelets were not “lewd” or “vulgar,” as the district had argued. The judge also ruled that school censorship isn’t justified simply because students’ speech “has the potential to offend.” The district appealed the injunction.
Roper and John E. Freund III, an attorney for the district, argued the case before the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in February 2013. In August 2013, the court agreed that the district’s ban on the bracelets violated the students’ speech rights.
Freund and Superintendent John Reinhart did not return requests for comment.
Easton Area School District appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in March 2014.
“Kids talk about important things, Roper said, “and when they do, that’s the kind of speech you want to encourage, not discourage.”
SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.