Pubdate: Sat, 30 Jun 2007
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2007 Rutland Herald
Author: Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau


MONTPELIER -- Zachary Guiles can wear whatever T-shirt he wants to
public school -- at least if its message is political.

Friday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case
of the Vermont teen who was suspended for wearing a shirt critical of
President George Bush that included pictures of drugs and alcohol.
That amounts to a victory for Guiles and the Vermont chapter of the
American Civil Liberties Union, which sided with him, and is likely
the end of the three-year-old matter.

"It was a good thing to go through with, I am certainly glad it went
in my favor," Guiles said. "I can certainly appreciate the fact that
the school has to control the learning environment, but I think
sometimes they abuse that authority."

Guiles, now 16 and attending an arts academy in Michigan, wore the
shirt while he was in seventh grade at Williamstown Middle-High
School. He was suspended because images of a martini glass and cocaine
on the T-shirt -- which called Bush the "chicken-hawk-in-chief" --
violated school policy against pictures of drugs and drinks.

"They didn't ban the shirt, they just banned the symbols, which didn't
take away from the message," said Anthony Lamb, an attorney for the

"We prohibit them altogether, so you don't constantly have that
conversation about whether this is a pro-or anti-drug or alcohol
symbol," Lamb said. That prohibition can help create a place with the
feeling that such misuse is not all right, he said.

"I, of course, will now advocate for the ultimate solution, which is
school uniforms," Lamb said.

But Allen Gilbert of the Vermont ACLU said the decision by the high
court to not hear the case -- therefore leaving intact a federal
appeals court decision supporting Guiles -- reaffirms that although
students may lose some free speech rights when they go to school,
there are also some they retain.

"It takes a long time and a lot of effort to protect student's free
speech rights and it takes a kid willing to stand up and say 'this
isn't fair,'" Gilbert said.

"Students don't have absolute rights the way an adult would outside of
school," Gilbert said. For instance students cannot be disruptive or

But neither are those rights left at the school gates, he

That is important, Gilbert added.

"The way that you teach the importance of free speech is to show a
respect for everyone's free speech rights. The most important
educational experience most of us will have is in the public school,"
he said.

The decision was made to not hear the case -- and therefore side with
the ACLU and Guiles -- because of another recent ruling.

Earlier in the week the justices ruled on a similar issue, this time
of an Alaskan student who unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4
Jesus" as spectators and other pupils gathered to watch the passage of
an Olympic torch relay.

Although the high court decided school officials were within their
rights to stop Joseph Frederick from showing that banner during a
school event, the ruling set the stage for the victory by the Vermonter.

That is because, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority
opinion, if the Alaskan student's banner had been political -- rather
than merely advocating drug use -- it would have been protected under
free speech rights.

The Alaskan case was clearly the basis for the decision not to hear
the appeal of the Guiles ruling, Gilbert said.

"They specifically said you cannot censor political speech by a kid
this way," in that decision, Gilbert said. "It's got to be related to
illegal drug use."

Although the Alaska case set the stage for Guiles' victory, not all
the justices agreed that political speech by students should be protected.

In his opinion in the Alaska case, Justice Clarence Thomas said the
Vietnam-era case on which the court's ruling was made mistakenly led
to "a sea change in students' speech rights, extending them well
beyond traditional bounds."

"As originally understood, the Constitution does not afford students a
right to free speech in public schools," Thomas wrote.

But the sort of divided decision by the justices -- allowing schools
to censor pro-drug messages but not political speech -- is
problematic, Lamb said. For instance is a T-shirt with the number 420
on it -- a code for the movement to legalize marijuana -- a political
statement or a pro-drug message, he asked.

But Guiles said it is possible to judge whether something is making a
political statement or not.

"It was clearly a political shirt," he said. "In this case it is so
clearly pointing out the down sides of using drugs and that is a
negative aspect of the president's history."

As for Guiles, although he lost his original T-shirt to an evidence
drawer during the case, he has since gotten a replacement in a larger
size, he said.

And he learned that the process may take time, but it can work, he

"I certainly do count this as a victory," he said. "If there is
something wrong it can be taken to the appropriate places. It is good
to know that is possible to do."
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