ACLU of Virginia Seeks Guarantee of Student Free Speech in Prince William Schools

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
April 24, 2006 12:00 am

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Elementary School Students Were Punished for Wearing “Latinos Forever” T-shirts
RICHMOND, VA– The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today said it has asked the Prince William County Schools to make an unambiguous statement guaranteeing free speech rights for students and to ensure fair treatment for students who wear message-bearing T-shirts. The request comes in the wake of the controversial punishment last month of two Occoquan Elementary School students – ages 5 and 8 — for wearing T-shirts to school proclaiming “Latinos Forever.”

“We’ve received some assurances that student free speech will be permitted in the future, but there’s way too much wiggle room in the school board attorney’s statement,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “As written, almost any circumstance could justify suspension of First Amendment rights.”

In her letter to Willis, school board attorney Mary McGowan wrote that schools “…will not prohibit students from expressing their political beliefs by wearing clothing such as the T-shirts in question, so long as they are not worn, as they were on March 31, on a day and under circumstances where disruption of the schools and injury to students is foreseeable.”

McGowan also refuted the ACLU’s contention that the two students, Joseph Soriano, 5 and Anderson Urrutia, 8, had been treated unfairly, claiming that they were “never punished nor prevented from attending school.”

Willis took issue with this statement. “Holding the children in the principal’s office for three hours before calling their parents and having them eat their lunch sitting on the floor constitutes punishment in the eyes of most people,” he said. “And while technically the kids were not prevented from attending school, they were certainly not allowed to go to class. There’s something fishy going on here. When the parents arrived at school their children were wearing extra shirts they had with them over the “Latinos Forever” T-shirts. With the message covered, what was the real reason they were kept from class?”

In addition to seeking a clear statement of student free speech rights, the ACLU also seeks assurances that in future instances, parents will be contacted in a timely manner and children whose clothes are deemed inappropriate will be allowed to change, if possible, and attend class.

Willis’s April 3 letter to Occoquan Principal Todd Erickson is available at:

McGowans April 4 response is available at:

The ACLU’s April 21 response to McGowan is available at:

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