EASTON, PA - The Supreme Court of the United States today declined to consider a challenge to the Third Circuit’s ruling that the Easton Area School District (EASD) could not prevent students from wearing popular breast cancer awareness bracelets that read, "i (heart) boobies! (KEEP A BREAST).” The Supreme Court’s decision effectively ends the case, which has been pending for more than three years.
“I am happy we won this case, because it’s important that students have the right to stand up for a cause and try to make a difference. We just wanted to raise awareness about breast cancer,” said Briana Hawk, who was in eighth grade at Easton Area Middle School when she was suspended, along with seventh grader Kayla Martinez, for wearing the rubber bracelets on the school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day in the fall of 2010.
In November 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of Martinez and Hawk. In April 2011, a district court judge found that EASD's ban violated the students' First Amendment right to free speech and issued an injunction preventing the school from enforcing its ban.
The school district appealed the injunction, and in a rare move reflecting the important and complex First Amendment issues in the case, the court of appeals granteden bancreview so that the full court of appeals - rather than the three-judge panel that typically hears each appeal - could weigh in on the case.
On August 5, 2013, the court of appeals ruled that the bracelets could not be banned because they are not plainly lewd and that because they comment on a social issue, they could not be banned unless they threatened substantial and material disruption of the school. The court found no evidence that the bracelets caused or threatened disruption.
Plaintiff Kayla Martinez said, “This whole experience has taught me that speaking up about issues that really matter to young people really makes a difference, even if you're only in seventh grade.”
This is the first time a federal court of appeals has ruled that student speech that is plausibly understood as commenting on political or social issues is protected by the First Amendment, even if it contains language that could be considered lewd by some. "The majority's opinion recognizes that teens, like adults, must be free to speak and learn about important issues that affect them. Even issues, like breast cancer, that make school administrators uncomfortable," said Mary Catherine Roper, counsel in the case.
"The First Amendment protects schools as a space where students are free to discuss important issues like breast cancer and talk about their bodies in positive terms," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The court's decision today is an important reminder to school administrators that they can't punish students for speaking out just because their speech might be uncomfortable or misunderstood."
The students are represented by Witold Walczak, Roper, and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
More information about the case can be found at: http://www.aclupa.org/our-work/legal/legaldocket/bhandkmveastonareaschooldi/