Imagine if Whitman began suspending students for wearing the popular “I Heart Boobies” bracelet that promotes breast cancer awareness among young women.
Many would consider it a vast overreach by the school authorities and a dangerous intrusion on student free speech.
But that is precisely what is happening in Easton County, Pa., where the school system has deemed the bracelets offensive. In April, school officials banned the bracelets because they were seen as detrimental to a proper learning environment.
The school system even suspended two students whose family members had breast cancer and who continued to wear the bracelets in defiance of the ban.
The families of these students took the school to court and won, but the school district has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The appeals court should decide against the school because the ban violates the students’ freedom of speech.
If the court rules with the school system, it could further erode the tenuous free speech rights that students currently have. In the 1986 Supreme Court case Bethel v. Fraser, for example, the justices ruled schools could prohibit student speech that is “vulgar and offensive” to prevailing community standards.
But these bracelets are neither vulgar nor offensive. Sure, they are a bit playful and cheeky, but they have just one goal in mind: to raise awareness about breast cancer.
“I do it because I care, not to be inappropriate,” junior Abraar Ahmad said.
If the bracelets are ruled inappropriate for a school environment, it would broaden the definition of offensive speech and allow school officials to impose their personal values on students.
The court needs to draw a line and stop this further encroachment on student speech.
If one student’s “I Heart Boobies” bracelet prompts a mother to get a breast cancer screening, then the only thing offensive about the slogan is the effort to ban it.
School officials don’t need to go after well-intended students who are trying to make a difference. Particularly in the internet age, in which young people are inundated with irreverence, schools shouldn’t police every student expression.
The U.S. Court of Appeals should recognize the right of students to express themselves and limit the authority of school officials to impose their personal beliefs on students. If so, it will be a victory not only for free speech, but also for breast cancer prevention in the United States.