ACLU Files Suit to Protect Student’s Right to Free Speech

March 27, 2003

DETROIT — Challenging a school’s decision to prohibit a student from wearing an anti-President Bush t-shirt, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit today in federal court against the Dearborn Public School for violating the First Amendment rights of their students.

Bretton Barber, a junior at Dearborn High School, wore a t-shirt to school on February 17 which displayed a photograph of George W. Bush with the caption, “International Terrorist.”  He was told to turn it inside out or go home.  Barber went home for the day and in order to avoid further discipline by the school, he has not worn the t-shirt since.

“The school administration could have chosen to use the safe environment of an educational institution for debate and discussion and to create an opportunity to talk about the issue. Unfortunately, they chose to ban political speech,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.  “The Supreme Court has made clear that students don’t lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates,” Moss added.

The school’s assistant principal claimed that the shirt promoted terrorism and would cause a disruption, despite the fact that he wore the shirt for three hours without incident. According the ACLU, there are strong indications that the reaction of Dearborn High School officials to Barber’s t-shirt was prompted by their disagreement with its message. 

“The school’s actions in this case have not only curtailed Brett’s free expression of his political views, but undoubtedly they also have inhibited the expression of controversial or unpopular viewpoints by other students,” said Andrew Nickelhoff, the ACLU cooperating attorney handling this case.

Barber is an excellent student, with nearly a 4.0 average, and was second in his class last semester.  He’s hoping to go to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and is particularly interested in pursuing a career in constitutional law.

“The shirt was meant to emphasize the message “no war” and I feel that I’ve been successful in getting that message out,” said Barber. “I think it’s especially important for students who may be asked to fight at some point, to have the right to say how we feel.”

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