Saturday, March 10, 2001

1st Amendment

When is a T-shirt just a T-shirt?

        School officials can't spank students anymore. For fear of lawsuits, they can't even grab the arm of a kid throwing a tantrum.

        So what's happening instead? Crackdowns on hairstyles, lipstick colors and that other threat to law and order, the Bocephus T-shirt.

        These restrictions are troubling. Self-expression is a teen-age rite and a warm-up exercise for creative adulthood. Without evidence that certain fashions will start a riot or prevent learning, schools ought to lay off.

        Thanks to a couple of Bocephus fans, the message may be heard.

Racist? Or naive?
        In 1997, two students at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky., wore their Hank Williams Jr. concert T-shirts to school. Because Mr. Williams, a.k.a. Bocephus, is a real Southern man, the T-shirts featured the Confederate flag.

        Stupid and wrong? Yeah, if you care how African-Americans perceive you. Likely to disrupt school? Not necessarily. Depends on the atmosphere at the time and whether the students were trying to start trouble.

        It's not clear whether officials at Madison Central cared about such details. District policy permits a ban on clothing with “illegal, immoral or racist implications.”

        Change shirts or be suspended, school authorities said.

        The students wouldn't and were. They eventually quit and went into home schooling. Then one of them sued.

        This is good. The case should help clarify how far schools can go in restricting student speech.

        In recent decades, U.S. courts have given school officials latitude to maintain control. Lockers can be searched without warrants. Dress codes can be enforced to prevent distractions from learning.

        No problem here. Let's face it, girls in mini-skirts the size of Band-Aids aren't exercising First Amendment rights; they're exercising the eyeballs of 14-year-old boys.

        This case is different.

A learning experience
        Madison Central is 9 percent African-American. School officials argued the Confederate-flag T-shirts could create racial tension. U.S. District Judge Henry Wilhoit Jr. agreed, dismissing the lawsuit.

        In addition to maintaining order, public schools are obliged to teach students how to get along, the judge said. If they allow potentially offensive symbols, schools contradict their mission to teach civility, he suggested.

        But last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reinstated the lawsuit. The court said it needed more information, including whether the school had experienced racial trouble before the T-shirts appeared.

        Quite right.

        Decisions to ban the Confederate flag are fine in many contexts, such as the moment when each of us gets dressed in the morning. If you perceive the flag as an insult to African-Americans — as I do — then you should keep it out of your wardrobe.

        But officials shouldn't ban these shirts off students' backs without a careful review of the circumstances.

        The intent behind displaying the Confederate flag is just too ambiguous for knee-jerk policies. This ambiguity is why it took years before Georgia legislators, black and white, reached a compromise in that state's flag controversy.

        Such compromises are healthy and educational — lessons in civility, if you will. Better this than a schoolhouse primer on violating the First Amendment.

       Karen Samples can be reached at 859-578-5584 or


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