Georgia student told to have a Coke and a smile, or else

Thursday, March 26, 1998

School officials were not amused when a teen-ager decided to make a joke by wearing a Pepsi shirt to last Friday's Coke Day.

Although Mike Cameron said, “I just wanted to mess with my friends' heads,” officials at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Ga., took the action seriously and handed the senior a one-day suspension.

Principal Gloria Hamilton said she saw Cameron's actions as a disruption. “It's not a Coke-Pepsi war issue. It has nothing to do with that. It was a student deliberately being disruptive and rude,” she said.

Cameron apparently unveiled a shirt bearing a Pepsi logo on it right as a school picture was taken of students spelling out “Coke.”

Hamilton says the school was merely punishing disruptive conduct. “In the past when kids have decided to ruin a school picture–occasionally we have some who decide that's the time to do an obscene gesture–they've been given six days of suspension,”

While the school principal says it's a simple question of student disruption, at least one First Amendment expert sees serious free-speech implications.

Kevin O'Shea, publisher of First Amendment Rights in Education, said that “there may well be a First Amendment violation here. First of all, you have a compelled-speech issue if school officials are mandating that students wear Coke clothing. Secondly, if Mr. Cameron wore the shirt to protest the Coke commercialization issue, he may well have been engaged in First Amendment-protected activity. It depends on his motivation in wearing the shirt.”

Efforts to reach Cameron have been unsuccessful.

O'Shea explained that “Coke and Pepsi have been engaged in a major marketing battle to sign up school districts to exclusive marketing agreements. This has been going on across the country. Oftentimes, school districts will try to attract or solicit Coke or Pepsi [by making the argument] that their district would be an ideal market for the products.”

Coke Day at Greenbrier High was an effort by the school to win a local contest run by Coca-Cola Bottling Company that gives an award to the most creative method of distributing promotional discount cards to students.

For their part, Coke executives say they were not offended by Cameron's actions. “The kid did what a kid does. We have people coming into the World of Coca-Cola here in Atlanta wearing Pepsi shirts,” said Diana Garza, a company spokeswoman.

– First Amendment Center staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.