Supreme Court Upholds Vermont Student’s Free Speech Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Vermont
June 27, 2007 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Vermont
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the political free speech rights of a Williamstown Middle School student, putting to rest a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont three years ago.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s action today is a complete and total victory for Zach Guiles’ free speech rights,” said Stephen L. Saltonstall of Bennington, who along with David J. Williams of St. Johnsbury was the ACLU cooperating attorney representing Guiles.

On Friday, the Court announced it would not review the case of Guiles v. Marineau. The Williamstown School District had appealed after losing before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court did not immediately deny the request for an appeal, waiting instead until it had ruled in another student free speech case, Morse v. Frederick, aka the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case. That decision came Monday, and on Friday the Court announced its decision not to review the Williamstown case — thereby allowing the Second Circuit decision to stand.

Although the Court’s decision in Morse v. Frederick was viewed as a victory for a school’s right of censorship, the decision was very narrow. It applies only to student comments advocating use of illegal drugs. The justices were careful to note that censorship may not extend to political comments made by students—that distinguished the case from Guiles.

The case revolved around a T-shirt critical of President Bush worn to school in 2004 by Zachary Guiles, who was 13 at the time. The T-shirt called Bush a “Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief” who was engaged in a “World Domination Tour.”

Guiles was told that he couldn’t wear the T-shirt unless he taped over certain pictures, including a martini glass, a marijuana cigarette, and cocaine. The pictures were allusions to Bush’s alleged former substance abuse problems, which were also described in words on the T-shirt. The school claimed the display of the pictures violated the school’s dress policy, which prohibits all images of drugs, or drug paraphernalia, on student clothing.

After a trial in August 2004 in Burlington, U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III ruled that Guiles’ free speech rights protected the written words on his T-shirt, even those words describing Bush’s alleged drug problems. However, said Sessions, those rights did not cover the pictures on the T-shirt. The school’s policy against drug images of any type allowed it to censor those parts of Guiles’ shirt.

The ACLU of Vermont appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, which agreed with Guiles in August 2006. The three-judge appeals panel relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker decision, arguing that “the pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey, accentuating the anti-drug (and anti-Bush) message.”

A copy of the Second Circuit Court’s decision is available here:

A teaching unit on the case is available here:

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release