NEWARK, N.J. — Parents of two New Jersey students claim their school district was wrong when it threatened to suspend the boys for donning buttons featuring a picture of Hitler Youth as a way to protest mandatory school uniforms.
The parents, in a federal lawsuit filed on Dec. 1, asserted that the Bayonne district and several of its officials have "stifled" the First Amendment free-speech rights of their children.
The buttons have the words "no school uniforms" with a slash through them superimposed on a photo of young German boys wearing identical shirts and neckerchiefs.
The district instituted mandatory uniforms in September for grades K-8, and one student wore the button for at least six weeks before objections were raised last month, said Karin R. White Morgen, a lawyer for the parents.
"Because the parents did not want to risk their education, the children are not wearing the buttons currently," Morgen said yesterday.
The district, in letters sent to the parents, said the images of the Hitler Youth "are considered objectionable and are offensive to many Bayonne citizens and do not constitute free speech according to Mr. Kenneth Hampton, attorney for the Bayonne Board of Education."
Messages seeking comment from Bayonne Superintendent Patricia L. McGeehan and the lawyer handling the case for the district, Robert Merryman, were not returned in time for this article.
The district's stance appears weak, in the opinion of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is not involved in the case.
"The school cannot prohibit student free speech even where some may find the speech offensive," said Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU's New Jersey chapter. "The school must show that the free speech is actually going to be disruptive, in order to censor it."
The matter is to be argued Dec. 11 before U.S. District Judge Joseph A. Greenaway in Newark.
The lawsuit asks Greenaway to bar the district from suspending or disciplining seventh-grader Anthony LaRocco and fifth-grader Michael DePinto if they wear the protest buttons. The parents also are challenging the uniform policy with the state Department of Education.
DePinto has been wearing the uniform; LaRocco has not — his parents are applying for a medical exemption since he is autistic, according to the lawsuit.
DePinto, who attends P.S. 14, wore the button with his uniform without any disruption before getting a letter Nov. 16. LaRocco, who attends the Woodrow Wilson School, wore the button without incident Nov. 28 and a letter was sent that day, the lawsuit said.
Morgen said the parents of the children did not want to speak to reporters, but provided a statement from Michael's mother, Laura DePinto.
"I've gotten overwhelming support from MANY people that tell me that they absolutely agree with what the image depicted, an ominously homogenous group of blindly cooperative children," the statement said.
"That image showed no swastikas, no weapons, and Hitler himself wasn't depicted," she wrote. "The picture makes a profound statement about what can happen when we turn children into 'uniform' followers. Our intent was not to offend but to make a bold statement about what we, as an American family believe is an erosion of a simple right, to be individuals, not blind followers. The very basic rights, to wear clothing we choose, and to peacefully protest what we know was the undemocratic stripping of those rights from us as parent and student."