Ban on Anti-Islam T-Shirts in Alachua County Schools Prompts ACLU Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
November 23, 2009 12:00 am

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School Administrators Trampled on Students’ Rights; Answer to Offensive Speech is More Speech, Not Censorship

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a federal lawsuit today against the Alachua County School District charging that school administrators unlawfully censored students’ free speech on multiple occasions when high school, middle school and elementary school students were suspended and/or threatened with suspension for wearing tee shirts promoting their religious beliefs about Christianity and Islam in school and at school events earlier this school year.

The lawsuit asks the court to find the school officials’ actions, as well as the school’s policies on banning “offensive dress” unconstitutional so that the students may express their religious views freely.

“School officials have a responsibility to ensure that all students are able to pursue their education free of disruption, harassment, discrimination and intimidation — including Muslim students who comprise a distinct minority within the Alachua schools. But officials also have a duty to protect the constitutional right of students to exercise their freedom of speech.” said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida Executive Director.

“The message on the t-shirts is an unfortunate expression of religious intolerance, but the School Board’s policy of banning any message that are ‘offensive to others’ or ‘inappropriate,’ unfortunately draws the line in a way that unconstitutionally prohibits freedom of speech,” Simon added.

Initially, students went to school wearing shirts with “Jesus answered ‘I am the way and the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except through me'” and “I stand with Dove World Outreach Center” on the front and “Islam is of the Devil” on the back. The same phrase was displayed on a billboard at the students’ church, Dove World Outreach Center, prior to the beginning of the school year.

Despite the fact that the message on the t-shirts did not create a disruption, school administrators declared the religious speech offensive and ordered the students to change or cover up the text on the back of the shirt or face suspension.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, the ACLU submitted 27 different slogans that the students wanted to wear and asked the District which would be banned and cause the children to be suspended or punished in any way and which would be allowed. The District refused to offer any guidance.

“Regardless of whether their message is offensive to some people, it is protected free speech,” said Randall Marshall, ACLU of Florida Legal Director. “There is nothing to suggest that there was a disruption as a result of the students wearing the shirts, and as offensive as their message may be, they have as much a right to express their views as anyone else does. That’s the principle of free speech in America – which applies even in the public schools.”

Following the original banning, the students were then banned from wearing the shirts even with the text covered up as school officials had originally instructed them to do. School officials also prohibited them from wearing a new t-shirt with “I.I.O.T.D.” on the back, as well as that shirt with text covered. “They were bound and determined to punish these children regardless,” Marshall added.

“Although the views expressed by these students may not be the view of all Christians, it is their view, and they have the right to express themselves freely. They don’t lose the right to free speech just because they walked through the schoolhouse door,” said Glenn Katon, ACLU of Florida Religious Freedom Project Director. “Free speech is for everyone. If we let officials suppress an unpopular religious view based on hurt feelings or because someone might be offended, free speech becomes meaningless.”

In a final effort to stifle the students’ free speech, school officials instructed police to eject the students and their parents from school property during an Alachua County high school football game on October 2, 2009. The students and their parents, who wore three different versions of the shirts to the game, did not disrupt the game or engage in disruptive behavior with other fans, but they were still removed from the premises because school officials found the message offensive.

No student has worn the shirt to school since the October incident for fear of disciplinary action by the school officials, but they would like to begin wearing the shirts to express their religious viewpoint. The ACLU will be seeking an injunction to allow the students to return to school wearing the shirts.

Download a PDF of the Complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida here:

ACLU of Florida attorneys in Sapp et al v. School Board of Alachua County are Randall C. Marshall, Legal Director; Glenn M. Katon, Director, Religious Freedom Project; and Benjamin James Stevenson, Staff Attorney.

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