Various sources report that a student in Deer Creek, Oklahoma, was forced to remove a t-shirt containing the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” The ACLU of Oklahoma has written a letter in support of the student’s right to wear the t-shirt and explains that school officials should apologize.
The ACLU has a point, as the U.S. Supreme Court explained years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. Sch. Dist. (1969) that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court in Tinker protected the right of several students from Iowa to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.
In Tinker, the Court established a test that has guided school administrators for decades. This test – sometimes called the “substantial disruption” test – provides that school officials cannot censor student speech unless they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invades the rights of others.
Justice Abe Fortas, who wrote the opinion in Tinker, warned that school officials could not act based on “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance.” He also emphasized that the black armbands were a form of political speech.
There are several key points to consider:
While all of the facts are not known, Deer Creek school officials should carefully examine whether they acted more out of “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance” or based on actual evidence of a substantial disruption.”
A “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt is political speech that should receive protection from school officials.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Freedom of Expression in American Schools and Teen Legal Rights (3rd Edition).