Free speech is back in style at a local high school where 14 students were stopped from wearing "Free the Jena 6" T-shirts last month. After protests from students and parents and a sharply worded letter from the ACLU of Southern California, the principal of Alta Loma High School near Rancho Cucamonga cancelled the ban.
"The ban on the 'Free the Jena 6' T-shirts is obviously unlawful," ACLU/SC staff attorney Peter Bibring wrote. Parts of the ACLU/SC's letter were read at a rally of several hundred students, teachers, and parents at the school. Principal Jim Woolery rescinded the restriction the next day.
The students were responding to the prosecution of six black high-school students after racially motivated violence broke out in Jena, Louisiana. The six were originally charged with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy. The final student was released Sept. 27 after more than 9 months in jail. White students who sparked the confrontations when they hung nooses from a tree at the high school received three-day suspensions.
The ACLU has called for Louisiana's attorney general to examine the actions of the local prosecutor, and helped the Jena 6 families arrange legal defense.
The Alta Loma rally was arranged after Principal Woolery ordered 14 students to turn their T-shirts inside out on Sept. 20, a national day of protest involving tens of thousands of people nationwide.
Under federal and state law, school administrators are allowed to limit student speech only if it poses a clear threat of causing an on-campus disruption. The principal's action failed to meet that test.
"The students' expression of their views on a national issue by wearing T-shirts supporting the Jena defendants is political speech that lies at the heart of the First Amendment's protections," wrote Bibring.