Zeeland school board meets tonight to discuss T-shirts

Monday, March 16, 1998

T-shirts are likely to be the primary topic of conversation at tonight's school board meeting at Zeeland High School in Zeeland, Mich.

School officials in this western Michigan community recently suspended 18-year-old junior Eric VanHoven on two occasions over his refusal to take off T-shirts bearing the band names “Korn” and “Tool.”

The shirts in question were imprinted only with the names of the bands. But school officials suspended VanHoven after going onto the Internet to read lyrics of some of the songs recorded by the groups.

VanHoven's attorney Kary Love said that his client's First Amendment right to free expression was violated by school officials. “We're clearly talking about protected expression here. His wearing of the shirts was completely nondisruptive,” said Love, who has been active in other First Amendment cases.

Love plans to read an open letter to the school board tonight. The text of the letter notes that:

“After 228 years the struggle for free speech in America continues. On March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre followed demonstrations over the Stamp Act, which required government approval of printed materials. On March 5, 1998, 228 years later, the Zeeland High School T-Shirt Massacre occurred as Eric VanHoven was suspended for wearing a T-shirt containing the single word 'Korn.' This was not a very fitting commemoration of the tragic episode … that set America on the road to freedom from government censorship. …

“Right now students can be suspended for a single, nonobscene word: 'Tool' or 'Korn' or any word government bureaucrats search the Internet to find that allegedly implies obscenity, etc., in their unfettered judgment. … If freedom of speech doesn't protect the right to display one word, what is left? The freedom to display a blank shirt? America surely stands for greater free speech than this.”

Love's letter concludes: “I ask each of you, as parents whose children deserve the legacy of liberty, and as citizens who love America and its great charter of freedom, the Bill of Rights, to support the spirit of freedom and to end the Zeeland High School T-shirt Massacre.

A call placed to school officials was not returned.