Two Michigan middle schoolers are suing for the right to wear “Let’s Go Brandon” sweatshirts. An Iowa high schooler posed next to the governor with “I Read Banned Books” emblazoned on his chest. And a Massachusetts seventh grader’s clothing insists “There are only two genders.”
U.S. students are making their voices heard with political clothing as they navigate an increasingly polarized society where most of them can’t vote at the ballot box.
At the same April 30 Iowa Governor’s Scholar Program ceremony that featured the “Banned Books” T-shirt, a transgender student walked on stage to accept an award from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds wearing pins that said “Trans Rights Are Human Rights” and “She Her,” as well as a tie in the colors of the transgender flag.
The student yelled “trans rights are human rights” after shaking hands with Reynolds, who had pushed for the recently implemented state ban against gender-affirming care for minors, reported The Des Moines Register.
“Education is about preparing our students for their future careers and to be successful in the world around us, and part of that foundation is civic engagement,” Reynolds said after the incident. “While we may disagree about what is best for our schools, no student should be afraid to express his or her opinion, even when it comes to their governor.”
Clothing has long been used by American students to express their political opinions, with the most famous example culminating in the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In the case, the Iowa children, all of whom were 16 or younger, sued after their school refused to allow them to wear armbands that protested the Vietnam War.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, declaring the act was part of their First Amendment rights and establishing the so-called Tinker test for if the clothing in question poses a “substantial disruption” for the school that needs to be curbed.
Since then, courts have gone in “different directions” and with “different approaches” when examining political clothing in schools, said Vera Eidelman, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberty Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
“Sometimes, they’ll look at what’s the broader history of discrimination at the school. This has come up not infrequently with regard to shirts that have clearly racist messages, and some of the things that schools will look to is, ‘Have there been fights related to this before? Have there been disruptions of classrooms? What’s the history of this kind of speech and, let’s say, racial or homophobic or transphobic tensions in the community more broadly?’ Those are the kinds of facts that the court might look to,” Eidelman said.
The line is a tight one to walk, especially as students today become increasingly politically active and more willing to speak out against injustices they see.
Sohali Vaddula, a Texas high school senior who serves as the national communications director for the High School Democrats of America, said many of her classmates began wearing pro-abortion rights shirts after Roe v. Wade was overturned last year.
“I think it’s really important for us to be able to wear political clothing, because it’s a way for us to express what we feel and it’s our way of sort of putting pressure on — whether it be legislators, policymakers or people in power, to do what fits our needs and what’s best for us,” Vaddula said.
Liam Morrison, the Middleborough, Mass., 12-year-old whose “There are only two genders” T-shirt got him pulled out of class, was surprised by the pushback, telling Fox News Digital last week, “Everyone in my homeroom and everyone in my gym class had supported what I had done.”
“The reason that I wore it is because, well, everyone has a right to their opinions, and I want to be able to voice mine on a subject that a lot of people were talking about,” he said.
But the school district reportedly said that the “content of Liam’s shirt targeted students of a protected class; namely in the area of gender identity,” violating its dress code.
Vaddula said in that instance, the shirt should come off “because people around him felt threatened by it.”
In Michigan, two middle schoolers filed suit against their school district late last month after being told that their “Let’s Go Brandon” gear is “vulgar and profane.”
“The commonly known meaning of the slogan ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ is intended to ridicule the President with profanity,” the district said. “‘Let’s Go Brandon’ is a transparent code for using profanity against the President.”
But the students’ attorney, Conor Fitzpatrick, said “criticism of the president is core political speech protected by the First Amendment” in a statement shared with The Hill.
“Whether it’s a Biden sticker, ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ sweatshirt, or gay pride T-shirt, schools can’t pick and choose which political beliefs students can express,” Fitzpatrick said.
“A public school district cannot censor speech just because it might cause someone to think about a swear word,” he added.
David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, said whether it’s a free-for-all or some kind of limit such as “Free Expression Fridays,” the important standard is district officials giving students an equal platform to all opinions.
“If they find that these sorts of things are causing enormous disruption at the school, then they would have to do something, but they would have to do something so that all viewpoints are treated equally,” Keating said.
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