ACLU of Vermont Wins in Appeals Court Over Right of Student to Wear Anti-Bush T-Shirt

August 30, 2006 12:00 am

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MONTPELIER, VT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont announced today that the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s ruling and affirmed the free speech rights of a Williamstown Middle School student to wear a T-shirt critical of President Bush.

“The court’s decision is a strong statement for student free speech rights,” said Allen Gilbert, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which brought the case. “The unanimous decision of the three-judge panel couldn’t be clearer that the school overstepped its bounds in trying to censor the anti-Bush T-shirt worn by Zach Guiles.”

The case began in May 2004, when Guiles was suspended for wearing a T-shirt that called Bush “Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief” who was engaged in a “World Domination Tour.” Guiles was later allowed back in school, but he was told that he couldn’t wear the T-shirt unless he taped over images of a martini glass, a marijuana cigarette, and cocaine. The pictures were allusions to Bush’s alleged former substance abuse problems — which were also described in words on the T-shirt.

The school claimed the display of the pictures violated the school’s dress policy, which prohibits all images of drugs, or drug paraphernalia, on student clothing. The ACLU of Vermont argued that such images should be allowed when part of a political message, as opposed to promotion of drugs and alcohol.

After a trial in August 2004, Judge William K. Sessions III ruled that Guiles’ free speech rights covered the written words on the T-shirt, even those words describing Bush’s alleged drug problems. However, said Sessions, those rights did not cover the pictures on the T-shirt. The school’s policy against drug images of any type allowed it to censor that part of Guiles’ shirt.

The Second Circuit disagreed, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines involving the right of students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War (a lawsuit also brought by the ACLU).

The Second Circuit decision stated: “The pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey, accentuating the anti-drug (and anti-Bush) message . . . Applying Tinker to the facts of this case, we conclude that defendants’ censorship of the images on Guiles’s T-shirt violated his free speech rights,” the court concluded.

“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,” Plaintiff Zachary Guiles, now 15, said. “I’m very happy with the way the case turned out. It’s basically all that we hoped would happen.”

Guiles was represented by ACLU cooperating attorneys Stephen Saltonstall of Bennington and David J. Williams of St. Johnsbury.

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