Pro-Life Censorship in School?

David Hudson writes writes for the First Amendment Center about a young girl who told by her school to remove a t-shirt that had a pro-life message on it.
A dress-code dispute over an anti-abortion T-shirt will head to trial in late August, after a federal district judge said it was an open question whether officials prohibited a student from wearing her shirt with pictures of fetuses because of its viewpoint or because it was too graphic.

In April 2008, a sixth-grade student at McSwain Union Elementary School in Merced, Calif., wore an anti-abortion shirt during the week of state standardized testing.

The shirt featured the word “ABORTION” on the front with three squares below it. The first two squares showed images of fetuses and the third was black. Below the three squares was the caption, “growing, growing … gone.” The back of the shirt read: “American Life League’s Sixth Annual NATIONAL PRO-LIFE T-SHIRT DAY April 29, 2008”

It looks like the school said that the shirt violated the school dress code. But the First Amendment Center quotes the school policy as:
“Personal articles, clothing, or manner of dress shall make no suggestion of tobacco, drug, or alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, profanity, vulgarity, or other inappropriate subject matter.”

The judge, presiding over the case, refused to toss the case when requested to do so saying there was evidence for both sides.

“Plaintiff alleges that Defendants censored Plaintiff’s expression due to the fact that her t-shirt advanced a pro-life message, and there is some evidence on the record sufficient to support such an inference,” Wanger wrote.

However, he also said the school officials presented evidence that “the restriction imposed on Plaintiff was not based on the viewpoint expressed by Plaintiff’s shirt, but rather on the graphic pictures contained on it.”

Graphic? I didn't see the specific shirt but I've seen the poster many places and if it's the same one, it shows two pictures of perfectly fine human babies in the womb. How can that be too graphic? These weren't pictures of babies torn apart. Have we really gotten to the point where pictures of babies in the womb are "too graphic?"

The judge also said it was an open question whether school officials could show that the anti-abortion shirt would have disrupted school. That would seem to me to be the school district's best argument here.

Now, this argument strikes me as hypocritical because school district all across the country refer and arrange abortions for children. The old line is that they can't give a kid an aspirin but they can arrange an abortion without parents knowing about it. So they can arrange abortions but nobody's allowed to wear a shirt with an unborn child on it?

Remember, free speech is only for those who agree with the state. Everything else is shouting fire in a crowded movie theater.


  1. So this girl was wearing a T-shirt, and was asked to remove it because it was "graphic"? Has that school been exposed to the fashion tastes of young women of late? Styles of clothing I'd be embarrassed to wear under my clothes? Let alone as clothing?

  2. I am, of course, sympathetic to the girl's pro-life feelings, but I think that schools should be able to enforce dress codes without having to consult court precedence. I think this is a great argument for school uniforms.

  3. As for the disruption argument, don't have the facts yet, but if the disprution only occurred because the school officials called attention to it, seems some "invited error" or in this case "invited disruption" should apply to invalidate that argument. I wonder if the biology textbooks used in that school show similar "graphic" pictures? Better yet, what do the sex-ed textbooks show?

  4. If the pictures are graphic and offensive, parents and/or students should then be able to exempt themselves from biology and health classes, or sue the school, on the grounds that school employees subjected them to "graphic images" of human anatomy or in-utero development.

    Oh the fun I could have with this precedent - if I had kids in a school.

  5. Mrs. Crankycon, which part of the school's dress code is violated by this shirt? "other inappropriate subject matter"? That's very vague.

  6. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't think school officials should be expected to be either. The shirt is provocative. It's meant to be. I think that teachers and principals should have the right to decide what's appropriate. Is that 100% fair? No, it's not. In a perfect world, the school would have had a discussion with the girl and her parents about the issue, and perhaps clarified their dress code. It would not have become yet another litigious opportunity to politicize everything that happens in public schools. There was another court case made it to the supreme court where a kid had a poster that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The school in that instance made the decision to censor the poster. The school won the case, limiting students free speech. I think it was a good decision. Even when the speech is for an issue I agree with.

  7. I of course must agree with my wife - and not just because she's standing over my shoulder. Moreover, I agree with Justice Clarence Thomas. There are no first amendment rights in high schools. So from a purely constitutional point of view, the school is well within its rights.

    As to a matter of policy, that is a wholly different argument.

  8. speaking of censorship......check out the Houston Votes "Police" video you posted a day or so ago.

  9. Bong Hits 4 Jesus is promoting an illegal activity. It also would fall under the "drug use" portion of the above policy.

    I agree that the school is within its rights to make this decision, but the student is also within her rights to contest the decision. The policy doesn't say anything about "provocative". Furthermore, the cited reason is the graphic nature of the images, not the inappropriateness of the shirt.

    Imagine a slightly different scenario, where the student wears a Silent No More t-shirt. Without the graphic images, would it be legitimate for the school to prohibit it? If not, then the case would rest on the graphic nature of the images and not the nature of the message.

    Why would there be no First Amendment rights in a public high school? I see nothing in the Constitution that includes that exception to government limitation of free speech, nor any caveat implying the rights only belong to adults. Guess I'll have to look and see what Justice Thomas' rationale is.

  10. Even though I hate relying on Wikipedia, this is a good summation of Thomas's argument:

    Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence that argued that students in public schools do not have a right to free speech and that Tinker should be overturned. Thomas wrote, "In my view, the history of public education suggests that the First Amendment, as originally understood, does not protect student speech in public schools."[34] He praises Hugo Black's dissenting opinion on Tinker and called it "prophetic". Thomas cited the doctrine of in loco parentis, meaning "in place of the parent", in his opinion. He traced the history of public education in America back to its colonial roots. According to Thomas, because originally public schools were intended to substitute for private tutors, public schools could discipline students as they liked and had a far stronger hand in what happened in the classroom. "In short", he continues, "in the earliest public schools, teachers taught, and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed."[35] He opined that because parents entrusted the care of their children to teachers, teachers have a right to act in the place of parents during school hours. Therefore, teachers should be able to discipline students if necessary. Thomas lambasted Tinker for "usurping [the local school district as a] traditional authority for the judiciary".[36] Thomas believed that Frederick was neither speaking gibberish nor openly advocating drug use, but granting such an impertinence constitutional protection "would ... be to 'surrender control of the American public school system to public school students.'"[37]

    The full text of Thomas's concurrence is here, starting at page 19.

  11. What if the parent's opinion differs from the teacher's? The school's acting in loco parentis should not be replacing the parent completely.

    The examples Thomas cites have to do with an unfortunately bygone period when most (if not nearly all) parents would accept the teacher's decision regarding the need for discipline. Odds are that the disciplined student would face additional discipline at home. Due to the increasing permissiveness of society, and increased litigation, more formal guidelines have been written since the 19th century. This gives parents and students a (hopefully) clear set of expectations, and helps to ensure that administrators/teachers apply the same standards, as opposed to some teachers disciplining behavior that other teachers would tolerate.

    Again, I agree that the school had the right to act as they did, even though I think they shouldn't have. However, once the real parents got involved matters changed. Unless the school can explain how the images were too graphic, or how the t-shirt was disruptive or otherwise violated the school policy, their in loco parentis status (more valid in the case of behavior than apparel) is overridden by the girl's parents.

  12. Sue for millions of dollars - that it the only thing the baby-killing government (and that includes the "public" schools) understands.

  13. "...other inappropriate subject matter" has opened up the school district's can of worms. Either you have a strict dress code (i.e. school uniforms) and enforce it or you don't. This student is merely exercising their rights


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