School bans ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirts from BB tournament

A California school district has banned athletes wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts from an invitational basketball tournament, citing safety concerns. The school didn’t receive any specific threats, but claims they don’t have the resources to deal with any trouble the t-shirts might cause. The ban means a girls’ basketball team won’t participate in the tournament because not enough girls on the team pledged not to wear the t-shirts. One member of a boys’ team is also sitting out the tournament; his father has contacted the ACLU.

“To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament,” wrote [Principal Rebecca] Walker, who said she was speaking on behalf of the athletic director and the Fort Bragg school superintendent. “We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out.”

California’s professional basketball team has a different perspective:

After Kobe Bryant and other Los Angeles Lakers players wore them before a game and on the bench on Dec. 9, coach Byron Scott said he viewed it as a matter of “freedom of choice and freedom of speech.”

Yeah well, guess what, it is. The free speech rights of public school students were defined by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, wherein a school district suspended several students for wearing black armbands to school in protest against the Vietnam War, and several subsequent cases.

SCOTUS has given school officials somewhat more, but nevertheless limited, latitude to abridge student speech in the interest of maintaining “appropriate discipline” in schools and preventing “material disruption” of the school’s educational mission. For example, the court has allowed school officials to restrict sexual speech and speech promoting drug use at school assemblies, in student newspapers, etc.

So, the legal issue here is somewhat of a gray area, not black-and-white, but I don’t think this censorship passes the smell test.

These t-shirts don’t contain lewd language, promote drug use, or advocate violence. In fact, they’re a statement against violence, and censoring them absent any specific threat or danger smells like suppressing dissent merely because it is dissent. I think the school district should be required to show the t-shirts would create a specific danger to tournament participants, spectators, or school officials supervising the event. A speculative assumption that attendees might disagree over “political statements or protests” does not equate with “material disruption.”

What this school district has done smacks of school officials’ age-old generalized desire to prevent possible trouble and make their jobs easier by banning any speech they deem to have a potential for being controversial. As the Tinker case made clear 45 years ago, they can’t do that. Even though the courts haven’t accorded to public school students the full scope of free speech rights enjoyed by adults in general society, I strongly suspect this latest example of an effort by public school officials to  censor political speech267cf0782a0c5731680f6a7067004da4 won’t stand.




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