Recently, St. Louis-area junior high school students Tori Shoemaker and Cheyenne Byrd were suspended for two days because they wore home-made t-shirts that read “safe sex or no sex.” The shirts were decorated with condoms, and were meant to protest the school’s abstinence-only sex education curriculum. The students said their shirts were a form of free speech, but a superintendent said that the shirts were inappropriate and a distraction at school (so, apparently free speech is only permissible when appropriate). Watch the CNN report here.
Haven’t we seen this kind of thing before, with students punished for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war? In 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that symbolic speech and political expression were protected under the First Amendment. How are Shoemaker and Byrd’s t-shirts any different from those black armbands, to which the 1969 ruling applied? As the Court wrote, “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”