A Wisconsin eighth-grader is suing her principal and school district for the right to wear a somewhat silly bracelet that deals with a deadly serious topic.
Kaisey Jenkins, a student at Sauk Prairie Middle School in central Wisconsin, says the school has no right to stop her from wearing the "I Heart Boobies!" breast cancer awareness bracelets that have become ubiquitous in American schools. So Jenkins and her mom, Caran Braun, filed suit yesterday, claiming that forcing the student to ditch her bracelets is a violation of her First Amendment rights.
Jenkins' suit alleges that "dozens, if not hundreds" of Sauk Prairie students wore the bracelets during last school year, before Principal Ted Harter announced at a school assembly that the bracelets violated the school's dress code, and were banned.
Eventually, Harter relented in a backhanded way, telling students they could wear the bracelets, but only if they were inside out, thereby hiding the "I Heart Boobies!" message, Braun's lawsuit alleges.
The bracelets, a serious success among teens and tweens, are produced by the Keep A Breast Foundation -- note the coy play on words, even in the foundation's name -- which has marketed them specifically at teenagers. In its marketing, the Keep A Breast Foundation says the bracelets are a way to "speak to young people in their own voice about a subject that is often scary and taboo."
They were wildly successful at Jenkins's school, at least until Harter announced they were no longer allowed. Harter told the school assembly that the bracelets were a "distraction" that had offended teachers, and that both teachers and parents had complained the bracelets "trivialized the disease."
Moreover, according to the suit, the bracelets were simply in violation of the school's dress code, which bans profanity, suggestive writing, and innuendo:
"We looked at the bracelets," Harter said, "and there is a slang term. 'Boobies' is a slang term that we would not want students using in classroom discussion or teachers using in a classroom discussion."The school's decision is hardly the first such episode. Last fall, schools in South Dakota and California banned the bracelets. But Jenkins does have some precedent on her side: In April, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that the bracelets were appropriate for school, with Judge Mary McLaughlin writing in her decision that the bracelets "can reasonably be viewed as speech designed to raise awareness of breast cancer and to reduce stigma associated with openly discussing breast health."
The Wisconsin suit describes a one-on-one meeting with Braun, arguing on her daughter's behalf, against Harter. Harter told Braun that students "have no First Amendment rights." He later backed off, saying they have only "very limited" rights.
The thing is, he's kind of right about that -- at least under the current U.S. Supreme Court. In its landmark 2007 ruling in Morse v. Fredrick, the Roberts court ruled that an Alaska high school had every right to punish a student who'd held up a sign reading, "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" at a school event.
Jenkins's suit isn't seeking any actual damages, aside from attorney's and court filing fees; she just wants the right to wear the bracelets, which she says is protected under the First Amendment.