"The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced."

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LANGLEY, Whidbey Island — When the Young Democrats at South Whidbey High School wore T-shirts last week to mark the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, the club’s adviser told a student she had to cover up a few words and symbols on her shirt if she wanted to participate.

So she put blue tape over the following items on her shirt: a peace symbol, the word "war" with a slash through it, "$247,000,000,000" (one estimate of U.S. expenditures on the war), and the question "How many more?"

With those four strips of tape, what started as a school-sanctioned effort to raise awareness of the war’s toll backfired in a First Amendment controversy. The flap culminated Monday when more than 100 angry parents and Vietnam-era peace activists packed a South Whidbey School Board meeting to denounce what they viewed as a challenge to students’ civil rights.

The incident has exposed raw nerves on an island that’s home to a military base, and it highlighted the perils of schools trying to limit students’ free expression in the name of neutrality.

School officials cast the incident as a misunderstanding over the purpose of a school-supported activity and say students are always free to wear clothing featuring peace symbols or other political slogans.

"My guess is if we relived that situation, we would deal with it differently," school district spokesman Brian Miller said Tuesday. "This has been a learning experience for everybody. … It hasn’t done a lot to promote the debate [over the war], but it’s done a lot to raise awareness about free speech."

Neutrality and "facts," not free speech, Miller said, were the focus when Mike Johnson, the high school’s principal, and Steve Durbin, the Young Democrats’ faculty adviser, met March 15 to discuss the club’s desire to wear custom-designed T-shirts to spark interest in an upcoming student-led debate on the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Durbin later told the club of the principal’s "recommendation" for the shirts: Depict only the names and total number of casualties from the war, Miller said. "The project was not to protest the war," Miller said.

But some students say that was the point.

For freshman Francesca Coenen-Winer, it wasn’t so much that administrators chose to limit student expression but that students didn’t feel they could dispute the decision. "We weren’t aware of our right to have this say and do what we wish and have a protest," she said.

Durbin, through the district spokesman, said that if students had insisted on turning the project into a war protest, he would have told the club he couldn’t be their faculty adviser.

Legal precedent

The ACLU of Washington plans to contact the South Whidbey School District, said spokesman Doug Honig, to make sure its staff members are aware of the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tinker v. Des Moines.

In that case, three public-school students in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The court ruled that school districts cannot prohibit students from expressing their opinions unless there’s evidence that it would cause "substantial" disruption to the school learning environment.

Miller said South Whidbey High principal Johnson was concerned that the combination of the peace symbol with the names of the dead soldiers could spark arguments or fights.

"The fact that expressing views on controversial issues might lead to disagreement among students and lead to discussions among students can be viewed as part of the educational process," Honig said.

The Tinker ruling also prohibits school administrators from speculating as to which issues or symbols are disruptive.

At South Whidbey High School, another student in the Young Democrats was allowed to wear a shirt featuring the names of U.S. soldiers killed in the war, written across an American flag, because the faculty adviser saw that as a neutral, or more positive symbol, Miller said.

Lessons in civics

Buzz Porter, an attorney at the Seattle firm of Dionne & Rorick who represents some Washington school districts (not South Whidbey), says schools are having to make more judgment calls about free speech and military issues.

Administrators can draw a distinction between individual student free expression and planned school activities, such as a newspaper or a club, that carry the school’s name, he said.

A year ago, several West Seattle High School students offended military personnel who had been invited there for an "Iraq Awareness Assembly." The students lay like corpses on stage, depicting the Iraqi men, women and children killed or wounded in the war.

The Seattle district’s chief academic officer, Steve Wilson, apologized in a letter to the community: "While I believe our students do have the right to freedom of expression, the message should be presented in a respectful and evenly balanced manner. The assembly should have been an opportunity to learn, not to cast the military in such a derogatory manner."

Dick Clark, executive vice president of the Seattle-based Institute for Educational Inquiry, says civics instruction has suffered in light of a harder focus on reading and math.

"The fact that students don’t understand the First Amendment isn’t surprising to me because I don’t think the adult population understands it either," Clark said.

The South Whidbey Young Democrats, meanwhile, have rescheduled their school’s debate on the war to coincide with the three-year anniversary in May of President Bush’s standing aboard an aircraft carrier to declare "Mission accomplished."


Fayner Says: Simple is the understanding that American citizens have under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment the right to free speech.

It’s not that hard to understand.

And what’s funny is while this young woman found resistance in the peace symbol she drew on her shirt, another student with names of war casualties inside an American Flag on his shirt was allowed to continue wearing it.

One wonders who decided that our flag stands as a more positive image than the fucking peace symbol??????????????????????????

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