Letter to Shelby Superintendent and Board of Education Opposing Censorship of Hemp T-shirt

Superintendent Randy Fuller
Members of the Shelby County Board of Education
410 East College Street
P. O. Box 1910
Columbiana, AL 35051-1910

November 9, 2007

Dear Superintendent Fuller and Members of the Board of Education,

We are concerned about the recent decision barring Oak Mountain High School senior Brian Simpson from wearing t-shirts advocating the use of hemp.  Without questioning the dress code enforced in your schools, which prohibits clothing that has “obscene language and/or illegal substance advertisements” or that promotes “products or activities prohibited by school policy or that is inflammatory and may generate negative feelings among the student body,” we suggest that Simpson’s t-shirt does not fall into any of the prohibited categories, and that barring it violates his First Amendment rights.

It is long established that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969). In numerous cases before and since, the Supreme Court recognized that students have a right to express political opinions as long they do not interfere with the educational function of the school or substantially disrupt school activities.  This principle has been recognized by many courts, see, e.g. Guiles v. Marineau (2d Cir., 2006), and most recently by the Supreme Court in Morse v. Frederick (2007) which restricts speech perceived as advocating illegal drug use, but rejects “any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue” (Alito, concurring).

There is no evidence that Brian Simpson’s t-shirt would provoke “negative feelings” or constitute a significant disruption or threat to students’ well-being.  Hemp is not an illegal substance, nor is it prohibited by school policy.  The message was not inflammatory; rather, it was intended to demonstrate Simpson’s support for environmentalism, specifically the social and political advantages of using hemp, and to educate others about its benefits.  (Industrial hemp is cultivated around the world and is promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative in the production of paper, fiber, fuel and food products. It is sometimes confused with marijuana because both are from the genus cannabis, but hemp has no psychoactive properties.)

Disciplining a student for such non-disruptive expression is also contrary to Oak Mountain High School’s mission to help students “achieve their academic, creative, and physical potential.”  Discouraging students from expressing their views on important social and political issues conflicts with a basic premise of the role of education in democracy: “The schoolroom prepares children for citizenship, and the proper exercise of the First Amendment is a hallmark of citizenship in our country.”  (Chandler v. McMinnville School Dist., 9th Cir. 1992).

We urge you to recognize that your dress code has no application to a situation, like this one, involving non-disruptive political expression and to allow Brian Simpson to wear these shirts to school.  For more information, we hope you will refer to our online resource, Learning, Speaking, and Thinking Freely: The First Amendment in Schools at /education/schools/index.cfm.  We hope these materials will be useful to you and others involved in this discussion.  If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us. 

Sincerely,

 

Joan Bertin
Executive Director