BURKE, Va. J. Ryan Trimble made more than a fashion statement late last month when he wore a T-shirt to school picturing President Bush with the words "International Terrorist."
An assistant principal at Lake Braddock Secondary School sent Trimble home on March 26 after the boy refused to change his shirt.
School officials told Trimble, 17, that the shirt was a disruption, but he and his parents felt otherwise.
"My feeling is that I did not interrupt the educational process at all," Ryan said.
Ryan's parents, John R. and Jane F. Trimble, say they support his efforts to express his anti-war beliefs. They question whether Lake Braddock officials found Ryan's shirt disruptive or whether they simply did not agree with it.
"Ryan is a good student and is very respectful of everybody," said John Trimble. "But he does feel a need and right to express himself. He also firmly believes that that right doesn't end when he crosses into the school grounds. I think the message was uncomfortable for some of the teachers, and that is the true reason for him being denied the right to wear the T-shirt."
Lake Braddock officials declined comment. Paul Regnier, a spokesman for Fairfax County Public Schools, said "the judgment has to be made by the people who run the school" about what constitutes a disruption. He said Trimble was never forbidden from wearing the shirt, but merely advised against it for his own safety, among other reasons.
Regnier said county schools adhere to the principles outlined in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that case, the Court ruled that pupils' free-speech rights could be curtailed if they cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others. But they found in Tinker that students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War were not causing a disruption, and that school officials had erred in disciplining the students.
Ryan Trimble said that when he wore the shirt on March 26, he was warned by an assistant principal that he would have to change clothes if teachers complained of a disruption. Later in the day, two teachers complained and the principal told him to zip up his jacket or change his shirt. When he refused, the principal called Ryan's mother to the school.
The Trimbles claim that the principal told Jane Trimble that Ryan's shirt could start a riot and he could not wear it in school. So she took him home.
"I am proud of my son for standing up for what he believes in, and he does passionately believe that this combat in Iraq is wrong," she said.
American University legal scholar Jamin Raskin said that if Ryan's facts are correct, the school system violated his rights.
"The Court has been emphatic that student expression cannot be censored just because school officials or teachers disagree with its message," Raskin said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia wrote on April 3 to the school on behalf of Trimble, saying legal action would be warranted if he is barred from wearing the shirt.
"Ryan's shirt expresses a political opinion. That his opinions may be unpopular, or even offensive, to others in the school community does not justify the suppression of his right to free speech," wrote ACLU legal director Rebecca Glenberg.
Ryan has returned to class and has not worn the T-shirt to school since March 26.