LOS ANGELES, Calif. - A high-school class president who was prohibited from wearing a homemade 'Prop. 8 Equals HATE' T-shirt at school must be allowed to wear it because the message is protected free speech under both the federal and state constitutions as well as state statute, the ACLU of Southern California has told officials of Big Bear High School.
Citing extensive federal and state law on free speech, ACLU/SC staff attorneys Peter Bibring and Lori Rifkin state in the letter that a school may not simply prohibit speech because it presents a controversial idea and could incite opponents of the speech to cause a disruption. Schools can only prohibit speech that incites disruption because it specifically calls for a disturbance, or because the manner of expression is so inflammatory that the speech provokes a disturbance.
'School administrators can't silence a student whenever they fear someone might be annoyed or offended by the student's views,' said Bibring. 'The First Amendment's protections are at their strongest for political speech, which often deals with controversial issues.'
On Nov. 3, one day before California residents were to vote on Proposition 8, Jimenez wore a T-shirt to school on which she had written, 'Prop. 8 Equals HATE.' The proposition sought to amend the state constitution and prohibit same-sex marriage.
Jimenez encountered no problems during the morning hours, other than a few students who disagreed with her by telling her, 'Vote yes on Prop. 8.' But during Jimenez' sixth-period class, teacher Sue Reynolds objected to the shirt, telling Jimenez that she should not be wearing such a divisive message. Reynolds sent Jimenez to the principal's office.
Principal Mike Ghelber insisted Jimenez either take off the shirt or remain in the principal's office. Jimenez took off the shirt and returned to class.
'The answer to controversial speech isn't censorship, but more speech,' attorney Rifkin said. 'Instead of stopping Ms. Jimenez from wearing a shirt because other people may disagree with its message, the school district should use this as an opportunity to educate both teachers and students about the importance of free speech and nondiscrimination.'
Image: Mariah Jimenez, wearing her DIY shirt.