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Lewd Speech in Public Schools

In the latest ruling about freedom of speech for students in public schools, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia tried to make a distinction between "plainly lewd" and "ambiguously lewd" expression (" 'Boobies,' the courts and free speech," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11). By a 9-5 vote, the court held that two middle school girls were wrongly suspended for wearing a rubber bracelet with the message "I ♥ boobies! (Keep a Breast)." Their action was part of a breast cancer awareness campaign promoted by the Keep A Breast Foundation.

The Easton Area School District first suspended the girls for "disrespect, defiance and disruption," but later changed its rationale claiming that the word "boobies" contained a "sexual double entendre." I find both claims to be absurd. But since the school district used the latter as a rationale for its action, I'll focus on it alone. Why is "boobies" considered lewd? The two girls were expressing their opinions in a non-disruptive way. When I was teaching, students wore T-shirts or badges with sexual messages, and they did absolutely nothing to detract attention from learning.

Let's not forget that the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines School District in 1969 ruled that schools can restrict student speech only if it "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others." The word "boobies" hardly meets that standard. The distinction between "ambiguously lewd" and "plainly lewd" speech is not clear, and will likely be the cause of more suits. I say that because social and political issues by their very nature are controversial. As a result, language used in such cases is almost always bound to offend someone's sense of propriety. If one of the goals of education is to produce students who are engaged citizens, then sanitizing language should be the least concern.

For reasons that Europeans and others cannot understand, anything related to sex causes school officials in this country to become nervous. But young people today are exposed to language and images that their elders never were at that same age. I say it's time to recognize the new realities and act accordingly.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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