Bracelets that read “I heart boobies!” have been banned, cut off and confiscated by school officials all over the country. In some cases, wearing the silicone bands has led to student suspensions.
The jewelry was made by the Keep A Breast Foundation to raise awareness about breast cancer. Many children wear them to support family members suffering from this form of cancer, but some schools have decided, regardless of the context, that the items are “distracting and demeaning.”
Two girls at a Pennsylvania middle school were suspended when they decided to wear their “I heart boobies!” bracelets to class. Together with the ACLU, they sued the school district, claiming the ban was a violation of their right to free speech. The judge ruled that the girls’ First Amendment rights were indeed violated, and the experience has opened a conversation about freedom of speech in schools.
The high water mark for student free speech in public schools came in 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a case upholding the right of students to wear armbands to protest the Vietnam War. One of the low water marks for student speech came in 2007 in Morse v Frederick, in which the Supreme Court sided with a school district that punished a student for a unfurling a sign that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.”
I heart boobies cases have cropped up elsewhere in the country, including a student whose bracelet was confiscated in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 2012, a case in Wyoming, and another case in Pennsylvania. In the Easton case, school officials defended the ban under their authority to restrict “vulgar, lewd, profane, or plainly offensive speech” under Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986). It also claimed that it could ban the bracelets under Tinker’s loophole allowing schools to restrict speech that is reasonably expected to substantially disrupt school. The majority of the 3rd Circuit disagreed with those claims, in an opinion that may prove terrifically important for student speech rights.
Nobody disagrees that school speech cases have become hopelessly confusing. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing in one such case, wrote that “I am afraid that our jurisprudence now says that students have a right to speak in schools except when they do not ...” That about covers it. But the decision this week out of Pennsylvania tries to clarify the battle lines.
Supporters of the school argued that the term “boobies” was a lewd double entendre that attempted to “elicit attention by sexualizing the cause of breast cancer awareness.” Many others argued the context was key. Regardless of who is correct, the importance of the ruling is that student rights to free speech are being seriously considered. The case may make its way to the Supreme Court. Whether it does or not, teens have spoken, and their voices—and bracelets—aren’t easy to silence.