ACLU encourages non-disruptive protests at Va. high school

The ACLU of Virginia has informed school officials at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford County that they must allow students to wear “Free Banana Man” t-shirts to protest the suspension of a fellow student who sprinted around the football field wearing a banana costume last Friday night.

The student, Bryan Thompson, apparently did not interfere with the game or any other official activity, but according to press reports was suspended by Principal Karen Spillman for 10 days.  Spillman is recommending that the suspension be extended until the end of the school year.

The ACLU received inquiries today from students who were affected by, or knew of, the ban on the t-shirts.  Students wearing or carrying the t-shirts were told to remove them or had them confiscated by school officials.

“It is well established law that students do not lose their free speech rights at the schoolhouse door,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.  “Students are not permitted to engage in an activity that disrupts the educational process, but they can express their views in school.”

In 1968, the Supreme Court in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District upheld the right of junior high school student Mary Beth Tinker to wear to school an armband protesting the war in Vietnam.

“If the Supreme Court says the First Amendment allows a student to protest a highly controversial war by wearing an armband to school, then Colonial Forge High School students can certainly wear t-shirts demonstrating their displeasure with the school’s decision to suspend   a fellow classmate,” added Willis.

In a letter faxed to Spillman, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg wrote: “Based on our understanding of the facts, it appears that some students at your school have strong feelings about the discipline of a fellow student, and that they have chosen to express those feelings in a passive, non-disruptive manner. We ask that you respect their constitutional right to free speech.”

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