School suspends Michigan teen over T-shirts

Thursday, March 12, 1998

A Michigan high school student was recently suspended twice for wearing T-shirts bearing the names of rock groups Korn and Tool.

Zeeland High School officials suspended 18-year-old junior Eric VanHoven on two separate occasions for a total of three days after he refused to remove the T-shirts.

According to VanHoven's attorney, Kary Love, many students at the western Michigan public school planned to protest the teen's suspensions by holding a demonstration on March 13 in support of free speech. The students have already circulated a petition to express their beliefs that school officials acted too harshly.

VanHoven indicated that the shirts did not contain any offensive music lyrics, but merely stated the bands' names.

However, school officials looked up the lyrics of some of the bands' songs on the Internet and found them offensive enough to merit a suspension.

Love said: “I am still conducting an investigation into all of the facts. We are not planning on filing a lawsuit immediately. If we cannot settle this dispute amicably and obtain some sort of clarification and change on the school's vague dress code policy, then we will file suit.

“The school's actions are a violation of my client's First Amendment free-speech rights. He was clearly engaged in protected expression. Furthermore, his expressive activity in wearing these T-shirts was nondisruptive. He was simply conveying his support of the philosophical messages that he and other teen-agers interpret from these bands,” Love said.

“I believe that the school and my client have a mutual interest in upholding the First Amendment.”

Wendy Wagenheim, legislative affairs director for the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “Because there was nothing on this T-shirt other than the word 'Korn,' which was the name of the band, this shirt was simply not obscene. The music group may have some offensive music lyrics, but offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment and, secondly, this shirt did not have any music lyrics on it.

“Most schools have a policy that students can't wear T-shirts that promote alcohol or tobacco products, because these products are illegal. But punishing the wearing of this T-shirt is far more reaching. The actions by the school officials are so far out of the realm of illegal products that I'm very surprised the school is pushing this,” she said.

“Students still have rights, and schools sometimes forget this.”

A call placed to Zeeland High School was not returned.