NEW YORK — A Vermont schoolboy was within his rights to wear a T-shirt depicting George W. Bush as a chicken and accusing him of being a former alcohol and cocaine abuser, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
Zachary Guiles' school violated the First Amendment when it ordered him to cover parts of the shirt, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled in Guiles v. Marineau.
Guiles was a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Williamstown Middle High School in Williamstown, Vt., in May 2004 when he wore the shirt, which he had bought at an anti-war rally, to classes once a week for two months. Complaints from a fellow student and her mother who had different political views caused school officials to take a closer look.
Although teachers had told the complaining student that the shirt was political speech and protected by the Constitution, the mother complained to a student support specialist, who decided images of drugs and alcohol violated the school's dress code, the appeals court said.
The front of the shirt had Bush's name and the words "Chicken-Hawk-In-Chief" beneath it. Below the words was a large picture of the president's head, wearing a helmet, superimposed on the body of a chicken.
To one side of the president on the T-shirt, three lines of cocaine, a razor blade and a straw appear. Elsewhere on the shirt, the president is shown holding a martini glass with an olive in it.
After the school official ordered Guiles to turn the shirt inside out, tape over the shirt's images of drugs and alcohol or change into another shirt, he returned to school another day with duct tape covering the offending images and "Censored" scrawled on the tape.
After Guiles, who was suspended for one day because of the shirt, sued school officials in U.S. District Court in Vermont, a judge found that his First Amendment rights were violated but that the school could censor some images on the shirt.
The unanimous three-judge panel said yesterday that the school had no right to censor any part of the shirt.
"The pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey, accentuating the anti-drug (and anti-Bush) message," the appeals court wrote. "By covering them defendants diluted Guiles's message, blunting its force and impact."
The appeals court ruling sends the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
A telephone message left with a lawyer for the school was not returned in time for this story.
Guiles, now 15, said he was pleased with the 2nd Circuit's ruling.
"I think this is a very good sign that even with the current administration and the way the country is going there can still be a justice that allows free speech," he said.
His lawyer, Stephen L. Saltonstall, said the ruling goes further than previous law regarding what can be censored in schools.
"This case, as I see it, stands for the principle that schools cannot censor political T-shirts except in very limited circumstances, such as if they use swear words or some kind of sexual reference," he said. "It gives students a lot more freedom than they've had before to express their political views in school."
Saltonstall said Guiles is a straight-A student and a talented trombonist with the Vermont Youth Orchestra, which has performed at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.
The White House had no comment on the ruling or the depiction on Guiles' shirt.
Days before the 2000 presidential election, news reports confirmed that Bush had withheld information about a drunken-driving arrest in Maine dating to 1976. He said at the time he had not been specific about the incident because he wanted to keep the information from his twin daughters.
Bush said he gave up alcohol about 20 years ago after concluding he was drinking too much. He once referred to his youthful drinking as a "young and irresponsible" stage of his life.