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Anti-Islam T-Shirt Ban Prompts ACLU Lawsuit

Brandon Hensler,
ACLU of Florida
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November 25, 2009

Islam is of the Devil.

That is the T-shirt slogan that instigated a hailstorm of debate in Gainesville, Fla., about where to draw the line between offensive speech and speech that is intended to incite harm or violence. The T-shirts in question were worn to school by students of varying ages from elementary to high school.

Initially, students — all members of the Dove World Outreach Center, a Christian church — went to school wearing shirts with “Jesus answered ‘I am the way and the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except through me’” and “I stand with Dove World Outreach Center” on the front and “Islam is of the Devil” on the back. School administrators responded by banning the shirts, and in some cases, suspending the students.

The ACLU of Florida filed a federal lawsuit against the Alachua County School District charging that school administrators unlawfully censored students’ free speech for wearing T-shirts promoting their religious beliefs about Christianity and Islam in school and at school events earlier this school year.

While school officials have a responsibility to both protect students and ensure that all students are able to pursue their education free of disruption, harassment, discrimination and intimidation, they failed here by banning free speech. Regardless of the offensive nature of the message on the shirts, it is protected speech.

The Alachua County School Board’s policy allowing school officials to ban messages that are “offensive to others” is very subjective, and fails to hold officials to clear standards setting out what speech can be banned. No disruption ever occurred in the school to warrant the T-shirt ban. Indeed, the school board eventually banned the T-shirts even with the back covered so that the message could not be seen because everybody would know what was underneath!

Furthermore, in an event that made it clear school officials were willing to go to any length to ban the shirts, administrators instructed police to eject the students and their parents from school property during an Alachua County high school football game in October. The students and their parents wore three different versions of the shirts to the game and did not disrupt the game or engage in disruptive behavior with other fans. They were still removed from the premises because school officials found the message offensive.

In an attempt to prevent litigation, the ACLU submitted 27 different slogans that the students wanted to wear and asked the district which would be banned — the district refused to offer any guidance. The students have not worn the shirts to school since the October incident for fear of disciplinary action by the school officials.

The ACLU, which has a rich history of defending religious freedom, is seeking a court order so that the students can begin wearing the shirts to express their religious viewpoint. The views of these students may be in the minority, but that is precisely why they need protection: so their views are not trampled by the majority. Free speech for one; free speech for all.

A recent Independent Alligator editorial summed it up well:

Were it not for the freedom of the press and other freedoms we enjoy as Americans, we might not have the opportunity to share views about this church or other contentious issues.