Student suspended for wearing rock bands’ T-shirts sues school district

Friday, October 23, 1998

Eric VanHoven, the Michigan high school student suspended last March for wearing T-shirts bearing the names of the rock bands Korn and Tool, filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday against the Zeeland school board, the school district and several school officials.

Zeeland High School officials suspended VanHoven on two separate occasions for a total of three days for failing to remove the T-shirts.

Even though the shirts only bore the names of the bands, school officials took action against the student after deciding the bands' song lyrics, which they found on the Internet, were offensive.

VanHoven contends school officials violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

The Zeeland High School dress code provides that “any clothing or items that imply obscenity, violence, drugs, alcohol, or sexual innuendo are not allowed.”

VanHoven's complaint alleges that “the enforcement of the implied speech provisions of the dress code acts to unlawfully infringe on his right to free expression.”

The complaint also says that VanHoven “had a clearly established constitutional right to wear these clothing items as privately sponsored, noncommercial messages which expressed sincerely held artistic, philosophical or political views which he desired to communicate to others and which he was entitled to communicate in order to associate with other students at Zeeland Public High School who share similar beliefs or interests.”

The complaint also states that the shirts caused “no disruption of any official school activity nor of any academic class.”

In the 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials violated the First Amendment rights of several students who were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

The high court ruled that school officials cannot censor student expression unless the expression creates a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities or infringes on the rights of others.

VanHoven seeks compensatory damages for “his emotional distress, mental anguish and humiliation as a result of having been suspended and threatened with future suspension from school while exercising rights protected by the First Amendment.”

Zeeland school board communications specialist Jim Camenga said that he had not yet heard of the lawsuit.