The United States Supreme Court said today, without comment, that it won’t accept a Pennsylvania school district’s appeal in a case involving two middle school students punished for wearing “I heart Boobies” breast cancer awareness bracelets.
In denying the case, the Court effectively ended the Easton school district’s legal fight and granted a victory to the two girls and their parents, who argued the girls had a First Amendment free speech right to wear the bracelets, despite a ban imposed by school administrators.
The Easton Express-Times said last week the school district spent $107,000 pursuing the case, with an insurance policy paying most of those costs.
If the Court had accepted the case, the Easton case would have joined a short list of historic decisions about public school dress code polices and the constitutional rights of minors.
The debate over the Easton case in the lower courts referenced four previous Supreme Court decisions, including the Tinker decision from 1969 (which allowed schools to restrict student speech when it threatens a substantial disruption to the school environment or invades the rights of others) and the 1986 Fraser decision (which allows schools to ban vulgar, lewd, profane, or plainly offensive messages).
A divided federal appeals court used a third Supreme Court decision, Morse, to rule in favor of the students last August. The Easton school district claimed that court invented a new test of student free speech rights by referencing the Morse decision, and it wanted the Supreme Court to re-evaluate the appeals court decision.
In the Easton case, two middle schools students, called in court documents B.H. and K.M., wore the popular “I Heart Boobies (Keep A Breast)” bracelets to promote breast cancer awareness at their school for several weeks.
According to court documents, several teachers were concerned about the message the bracelets could send to other students. On the day before the school commemorated Breast Cancer Awareness month, administrators banned the use of the “boobies” on bracelets. But it allowed other ways for students to show support for the cause.
On Breast Cancer Awareness day, the two students refused to remove the bracelets, citing free speech concerns, and they received an in-school suspension and were barred from attending the school’s Winter Ball.
Through their mothers, the two students sued the school quickly, with the case heading to District Court and then a federal appeals court. The lower courts ruled in favor of the two students.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia heard the en banc, or with the entire panel of 14 judges. Nine judges sided with the students, while five judges dissented.
The school district’s attorneys believed there was enough ambiguity in that Third Circuit opinion, along with a split among other court decisions, to give the Supreme Court good reason to accept the Easton case.
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