White Zombie T-shirt spurs Rhode Island high school student’s suspension

Tuesday, November 17, 1998

After getting booted from school twice this year for wearing a White Zombie T-shirt, a Rhode Island high school student has asked the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to take legal action against school officials.

On Nov. 12, the civil rights group filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Department of Education challenging as unconstitutional the actions by Westerly High School officials.

In June and September, Robert Parker, a junior at Westerly, was suspended for wearing a T-shirt with a White Zombie logo on the front and the numerals 666 on the back. White Zombie, a 13-year-old hard-rock outfit that disbanded this fall, had numerous independent and major label releases. According to Rolling Stone magazine, “White Zombie has proved time and time again that they were a band that linked art with insanity — and most of all, never looked back.”

On both occasions, Assistant Principal Jim Spellman sent a letter to Parker's mother, citing the school handbook's prohibition against “any item of apparel or decoration thereon that causes distraction in the classroom or school building.” In his Sept. 11 letter, Spellman stated that Parker's T-shirt also subverted a school handbook ban on any “clothing that implies or is cult or gang related.”

Spellman said that “the administration of Westerly High School deems the wearing of a T-shirt with '666' displayed on the side opposite a satanic figure to be 'distraction/disruption in the classroom,' and that Parker would be “prohibited from wearing said T-shirt in public view at Westerly High.”

After investigating the situation, Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said that school officials regularly allow students to wear religious-infused T-shirts, such as “Praise Jesus” and “I will serve the Lord,” but censor those shirts that contain allegedly anti-religious messages. Brown said the school's actions violated not only Parker's free-speech rights but also the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“We point out in our complaint that school officials are preferring religious messages over what they perceive as anti-religious,” Brown said. “We want Robert to be able to wear the T-shirt and want the department of education to find the student handbook and its dress code improper.”

The ACLU's complaint also states that school officials never alleged that “Parker's shirt in fact caused a disruption or distraction or that in fact is cult or gang related.”

According to the complaint, Parker's suspensions deprived him of “his First Amendment interest in being free from content-based regulation,” and flouted “the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment since the school officials permit certain 'acceptable' religious messages but prohibit the satanic figure and '666.'”

Brown said the case would be assigned to a state hearing officer and that a hearing could be set within a few weeks or months.