School board scraps plans for ‘South Park’ clothing ban

Wednesday, February 18, 1998

A Connecticut school district has dropped its opposition to T-shirts and other apparel featuring the foul-mouthed cartoon third-graders of Comedy Central’s South Park.

A ban on clothing connected to the popular show would not hold up in court against First Amendment challenges, said James Gere, superintendent of Cromwell schools.

The board of education last week decided to scrap a principal’s proposal prohibiting the shirts and ball caps. The board’s attorney told the district that South Park apparel reading: “Oh my God, they killed Kenny,” doesn’t meet standards set by past case law, in which clothing has to be “distracting” to the educational process.

The school system’s current dress code, however, is still intact. It prohibits apparel containing obscenity or clothing that might be considered harmful, Gere said. Under the policy, two of the eight licensed South Park shirts will be banned because of obscenities.

“The issue was standards in the school setting,” Gere told the First Amendment Center. “I think that show is disgusting and it was our intent to alert parents to the show’s affect on children and we accomplished that.”

Cromwell Middle School Principal Harry Dumeer proposed the ban in January after receiving complaints from parents and teachers.

Television “shows with vulgarity in every other word are allowed to be aired, but at the same time, boards of education all over [the country] get beat up for not teaching the children right,” board member Sandra Muller told the FAC.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut’s role in generating public opposition to the proposed ban may have influenced the board’s decision, said Joseph Grabarz, executive director.

“Public opposition and the number of people interested in the issue indicated that a ban wasn’t going to slip by quietly,” Grabarz told the FAC. “That prompted school officials’ decision and rightly so.

“Too often, government bodies don’t listen to the advice of their attorneys and this was one instance where the attorney gave them good advice and they listened,” Grabarz said. “That, in itself, is a significant aspect of this case because in some cases town attorneys are too political or too afraid to tell these kinds of boards that they can’t do this.”

Cromwell is a suburb of Hartford that “likes to think of itself as more progressive than the way they were being depicted,” Grabarz said. “So there was a [negative] reaction to this proposal within the town itself which also helped to influence the board’s decision.”

In recent years, concern over school dress codes has become a major issue statewide, Grabarz reports.

“We’ve lost the sense that school is a place where ideas are discussed and people learn, and have adopted this view that children are predators, and should be told what to wear, when to wear it and how to wear it,” Grabarz said. “There are some places in Connecticut where it’s difficult to distinguish between a correctional facility and an educational facility.”

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