La. high school bans 'Free the Jena 6' T-shirts

By The Associated Press
08.30.07

JENA, La. — Officials at a central Louisiana high school have banned T-shirts supporting six black students accused of beating a white schoolmate, saying the shirts are too disruptive.

The “Free the Jena 6” T-shirts worn Aug. 28 by eight or nine students caused disruption on campus, and that disruption — not the shirts themselves — was why administrators announced that the shirts could not be worn at school, Superintendent Roy Breithaupt said.

John Jenkins’ daughters were three of the students who wore the shirts. His son, Carwin Jones, is one of the “Jena 6,” who were charged with attempted murder of Justin Barker.

Mychal Bell, the only one to be tried so far, was convicted on a reduced charge of aggravated second-degree battery.

According to court documents, someone hit Barker from behind, knocking him out, then others began to kick and stomp his “lifeless” body. He spent about three hours in an emergency room being treated for injuries to his head and face.

The attempted murder charges sparked outrage in the black community and drew attention from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now monitoring the cases. The Rev. Al Sharpton has also spoken up for the six students, saying the attempted-murder charges indicate a different standard of justice for blacks and whites.

Racial tensions surfaced in Jena — a town of 2,900 with about 350 black residents — last fall, when students at the high school found three nooses hanging from a tree on campus. Three white students were suspended, but no criminal charges were filed.

Jenkins said his daughters were just trying to make a statement by wearing the “Free the Jena 6” T-shirts, not cause trouble.

“They weren’t doing anything other than wearing the shirts,” Jenkins said. “The school doesn’t have a dress code. They were covered. They’re trying to tell them what they can and can’t wear.”

Courts have ruled that school officials can restrict students’ freedom of speech if it is causing a disruption, said Katie Schwartzmann, an ACLU of Louisiana staff attorney.

“The school definitely can interfere with those rights if there is a reason to think it is causing a disruption,” she said. “But it can’t be banned unless the speech is disrupting the school environment.”