Pennsylvania school drops ban on pro wrestling T-shirt

Saturday, December 25, 1999

School officials at Wickersham Elementary in Lancaster, Pa., have agreed to drop a prohibition on the wearing of T-shirts bearing the words “Austin 3:16.”

On two occasions last November, school officials told students to quit wearing the shirts, which refer to professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. School officials prohibited the shirts after some parents complained that they were offensive. Attorneys for the Lancaster School District said the objections were in part “religiously based.”

Keith Pierce, communications director for the school district, said that some parents expressed “discomfort” with the variation on the Bible verse John 3:16.

Pierce said: “School officials felt bad that the issue blew up. The principal was merely responding to parental objections and did not intend to dictate what students can and cannot wear.”

Last month, Ayesha Khan, litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote a letter to the Wickersham Elementary School principal, the school superintendent and the president of the Board of School Directors, warning that “this practice (of prohibiting the T-shirts) runs afoul of the United States Constitution.”

Americans United threatened to file a lawsuit if school officials did not desist from preventing students from wearing the T-shirts.

“There is no evidence that the 'Austin 3:16' T-shirt disrupted classwork or created substantial disorder,” Khan wrote.

Khan cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., in which the high court ruled that school officials could not censor student expression unless that expression materially disrupted classwork, created substantial disorder or invaded the rights of others.

Attorneys for the school district responded in a letter dated Jan. 14 that the school district would no longer “at this time prohibit a student from wearing an 'Austin 3:16' T-shirt.”

George Brubaker, the district's lead attorney, wrote that school officials did not intent to restrict student expression and that they were “legally permitted” to request that students not wear the shirts.

“The decision not to prohibit at this time the wearing of the 'Austin 3:16' T-shirt is based upon our belief that the T-shirt is not intended by the student to be derogatory toward another ethnic, religious or racial group,” Brubaker wrote.

“Mission accomplished,” Khan said. “While the school district attorneys said the school officials were legally permitted to regulate the T-shirts, their change in policy speaks volumes for their understanding of the law.”