At Riverside High School in Spokane County, and elsewhere around the nation, students have clashed with school officials over their right to wear bracelets that support breast cancer awareness. The bracelets read “I Love Boobies!” and are sold by the Keep A Breast Foundation. The Keep A Breast Foundation is a non-profit corporation committed to reducing breast cancer, and the group focuses on educating younger people. The Spokesman-Review today covered the story of how Dakota Jewell and Zack Jordan were suspended from Riverside High School for two days on Thursday for allegedly refusing to remove their bracelet that read “I Love Boobies!” When word got out that the two boys were suspended, many of their classmates joined them, wearing similar bracelets, and creating signs with the same slogan. More students were suspended Friday. The Spokesman-Review reported that Dakota Jewell donned the bracelet because he has had family members die of the disease and he wanted to promote awareness. Several students joined their friends in protest and were also suspended, and now some students are vowing to wear the bracelets this Monday as well.
Similar disputes are going on nationwide. Other schools nationwide have tried to prohibit these bracelets in school. I have not heard of any such cases going to court. It is certainly a matter of freedom of speech, but maybe the ACLU isn’t volunteering to take up causes like this because the speech really doesn’t involve overtly political or religious speech. But that’s just a guess. Last week, Professor Howard Wasserman of Florida International University School of Law offered his opinion on the subject of “I Love Boobies” bracelets in school. Wasserman accused the cancer foundation of going for the “lowest common denominator”. He opined that the students wouldn’t “have a prayer” of prevailing on first amendment grounds. However, professor Kathleen Bergin of South Texas College of Law wrote last month that she thought the “I Love Boobies” bracelets might be protected by the first amendment. She wrote: “… it’s hard to see much of a difference between arm bands worn to protest the Vietnam War, which the First Amendment protects, and a bracelet worn to raise awareness about cancer.” (The legal precedent she refers too is Morse v. Tinker, which I blogged about last year here.) In the Tinker decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of high school students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam war and to push for a truce. The school banned all armbands, and when the students wore them anyway, they were suspended. In 1969, the Supreme Court struck down the school rule, explaining that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
But a student’s right to freedom of speech is not unlimited, and in 1986, in Bethel School District v. Fraser, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the punishment of a student who used vulgar and lewd language when speaking at a school assembly. The student gave the following speech in support of a candidate for student government:
I know a man who is firm — he’s firm in his pants, he’s firm in his shirt, his character is firm — but most . . . of all, his belief in you, the students of Bethel, is firm. ‘Jeff Kuhlman is a man who takes his point and pounds it in. If necessary, he’ll take an issue and nail it to the wall. He doesn’t attack things in spurts — he drives hard, pushing and pushing until finally — he succeeds. ‘Jeff is a man who will go to the very end — even the climax, for each and every one of you.
The bracelets the kids at Riverside wear are certainly less disruptive than giving a speech such as the above. My opinion is that a court would strike down Riverside’s prohibition of such bracelets. I believe a court would likely side with Dakota Jewell and Zack Jordan. The “I Love Boobies” bracelets are not as “political” as armbands protesting a war. However, the way breast cancer research is funded, and the way its survivors are treated is a very hot political issue in the country. And lets face it the word “boobie” might be a little silly or immature, but it is hardly “vulgar” or “lewd”.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the students of Riverside. They will be faced Monday with a decision of giving up their rights or attending class. I remember when MaryBeth Tinker spoke at Gonzaga (see post), she mentioned that it was three years after her suspension before the case went to court. It would seem to be pretty demeaning to the students to be told that they are so immature that they cannot handle seeing the word “boobie” in small print around someone’s wrist. If it were my son or daughter, I would tell him to go to school with the bracelet on, but with a little black tape covering the “offensive” word. Nothing protests censorship like duct tape.
What do you think? Was the principal right to ban these bracelets? Could these bracelets lead to sexual harassment at all? Does it matter that these kids seem to have a well-intentioned concern for people with cancer?