Breast-cancer bracelets are protected speech

Monday, November 22, 2010

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Middle school and high school students have a First Amendment right to wear bracelets that raise awareness of breast cancer.

Yet school officials in several states — including California, Florida, Pennsylvania and South Dakota — have banned the “I (Heart) Boobies!” bracelets. They reason that the bracelets might cause disruptions in school or are inappropriate for students who may feel uncomfortable with the subject.

But censoring the bracelets is a bad idea. It's an unconstitutional state action on the part of school officials. The bracelets are entitled to the same free-speech protection as the black peace armbands that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled middle school and high school students in Des Moines had a First Amendment right to wear to school in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).

In Tinker, the Court noted that “school officials banned and sought to punish petitioners [the students] for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance on the part of petitioners.”

“In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion,” the Court wrote, “it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

The lesson of Tinker is that school officials can’t ban “booby” bracelets simply because they don’t like them or fear that a few people might be made uncomfortable by them.

Two middle school students in Easton, Pa., have sued the Easton Area School District after school officials banned the bracelets. The students, known in court papers as B.H. and K.M., wore the bracelets to support the breast-cancer awareness campaign and honor family members or close friends of their families who died of the disease.

Let's hope these two girls will win their fight against abject censorship and defend the First Amendment rights of public school students everywhere.

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