Court sides with school on student's T-shirt

By The Associated Press
12.28.04

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A federal judge has ruled in favor of the Williamstown public school officials who forced a student to cover up images of drugs and alcohol on a politically charged T-shirt.

However, the court found a distinction between words and an "inappropriate form of expression" in images, saying words were protected by the First Amendment. And it said that any disciplinary action against the student should be expunged from his school record.

U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions ruled on Dec. 20 that Zachary Guiles' First Amendment right to free speech was not violated when Williamstown Middle School Principal Kathleen Morris-Kortz ordered him to cover up certain images on a shirt that was critical of President George W. Bush.

The shirt had a variety of images on it, including cocaine and a martini glass. It referred to Bush as a lying drunk driver who abused cocaine and marijuana, and called the president the "chicken-hawk-in-chief" who was engaged in a "world domination tour."

The seventh-grader obtained the shirt at an anti-war rally. He was suspended for one day when he refused to cover up the shirt's drug and alcohol images.

Guiles returned to school the next day wearing the shirt but covered the images with duct tape. School officials said the modified apparel conformed to the school's dress code and allowed him to write the word "censored" over the tape.

Morris-Kortz had the right to censor the images because they violated a school policy preventing the display of drug and alcohol images, Sessions said in a 24-page ruling.

The judge, however, ordered the student's disciplinary record expunged because initially he was also told to cover words on the T-shirt that referred to cocaine. Sessions said words were different from images and could not be censored if used to convey a political message.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union which helped Guiles' family bring the lawsuit, said the distinction was important.

"The judge affirmed a student's right to free expression in school," Gilbert said. "He won the right for free speech in text, but the judge said the school has the right to have a policy against the images of alcohol, drugs and drug paraphernalia."