High school student allegedly ordered to change out of 'Hillary for Prison' T-shirt

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Sun Sentinel (Samuel Howard) reports:

The commotion over her shirt, said the Boca [Raton] High senior [Maxine Yeakle], began when a handful of girls in her chorus class talked loudly about the presidential election and how they consider Donald Trump supporters racist.

Despite a teacher's warning, Yeakle said, the students kept talking about the campaign.

In her next class, Yeakle said she got a note to meet with an assistant principal, who gave her a choice. She had to either change into a shirt given to students who violate the dress code, or get an in-school suspension, Yeakle said.

Yeakle's father, according to the story, chose to pull Yeakle out of school for the rest of the day instead. CBS-12 says much the same, as does ABC-6. When I asked the district for its side of the story, it responded that its policy is not to comment on student disciplinary matters; the Sun Sentinel also got no specific comment, but was told that school policy bars conduct that "substantially or potentially disrupts the educational environment."

Whether the school's actions violate the First Amendment (if the account is correct) is complicated. In Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. School Dist. (1969), the Supreme Court made clear that student speech is constitutionally protected, unless it "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others"; but what counts as "material[] disrupt[ion]," and to what extent can other students set up a "heckler's veto" by just doing something disruptive precisely in order to get the school to stop speech they dislike? (For more, see the posts related to the California school that banned wearing American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo, based on the fear that some Hispanic students would attack the T-shirt-wearers.)

But whether or not the school's actions were constitutional, I'm very troubled that a student would be barred from silently expressing opposition to a political candidate (and the likely future president) simply because classmates disapprove of this opposition and choose to disrupt class with their disapproval. If there is such disruption, it is the disrupters that need to be punished, not the speaker. As I've argued before, behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated: The lesson that it sounds as though the school is teaching (again, assuming the press accounts are correct) is that, if you disapprove of a political message, you should just disrupt class—or disrupt other things—until the government steps in to suppress the message that you want suppressed.

See also this post by Robby Soave (Hit & Run); thanks to Robert Dittmer for the pointer. For a story from May (which I only learned about just now, when reading the Hit & Run post comments) involving a California school's attempt—quickly rescinded—to restrict the wearing of "Dump Trump" shirts, see this Los Angeles Times article.

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