School Officials Wrong to Censor Student’s T-Shirt

Sophie Thomas

Black t-shirt worn by eighth-grader Sophie Thomas for her class photo. (Sophie Thomas)

Public school officials at Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Owensboro, Ohio, apparently need a lesson on the First Amendment in schools.

According to The Washington Post, school officials airbrushed to remove the word “Feminist” from a black  t-shirt worn by eighth-grader Sophie Thomas for her class photo.

The U.S. Supreme Court proclaimed in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Sch. Dist. (1969) that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  Under Tinker, public school officials can prohibit student speech only if they can reasonably forecast that the shirt would cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.

Thomas had worn the t-shirt before to school without any incident – making it difficult to see how the t-shirt could be considered disruptive of school activities or invasive of the rights of others.

This sounds instead more like what the Supreme Court warned about in Tinker – “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance.”    Or it could be that school officials may have been offended somehow by the word “Feminist” or simply considered it too controversial.

It’s difficult to see how the word “Feminist” is offensive or controversial. – but even if so, the First Amendment protects all sorts of offensive and controversial speech.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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