Judge Rules in Favor of Michigan Student's Right to Wear Anti-War T-Shirt to School

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
October 1, 2003 12:00 am

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Bretton Barber refused to back down after school officials objected to his t-shirt message.DETROIT – In a victory for students’ free speech rights, a federal judge has ruled that the Dearborn teenager who was prohibited from wearing a t-shirt with a picture of President Bush that reads, “International Terrorist” must be allowed to wear the shirt to school.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the lawsuit in federal court last February against the Dearborn Public Schools for violating the First Amendment rights of the student.

“The court’s decision reaffirms the principle that students don’t give up their right to express opinions on matters of public importance once they enter school,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Schools are not speech-free zones.”

In granting the order, Judge Patrick J. Duggan noted that “there is no evidence that the t-shirt created any disturbance or disruption” in the school and that “the record?does not reveal any basis for [the assistant principal’s] fear aside from his belief that the t-shirt conveyed an unpopular political message.”

Judge Duggan further rejected the school district’s argument that the schoolyard is an inappropriate place for political debate. As he wrote in the decision, “In fact, as [the courts] have emphasized, students benefit when school officials provide an environment where they can openly express their diverging viewpoints and when they learn to tolerate the opinions of others.”

Bretton Barber, a senior at Dearborn High School, wore the t-shirt to express his concern about the President’s policies on the potential war in Iraq. School administrators asked him to remove the t-shirt, turn it inside out, or go home. The school’s justification was that the shirt might cause a disruption despite the fact that he wore the shirt for three hours without incident.

“I wore the shirt to spark discussion among the students on an issue I cared deeply about,” Barber said. “I haven’t decided when I’ll wear the shirt again, but now I have the confidence of knowing that I have the right to wear it.”

Andrew Nickelhoff, an ACLU of Michigan Cooperating Attorney who argued the case, called the ruling “an important civics lesson for students everywhere. This case teaches that the First Amendment protects our right to express our opinions, and that sometimes we must have the courage — as Brett Barber did — to defend our rights.”

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