Censoring T-shirts

Asked to wear red, white and blue to show patriotism, 11-year-old Daxx Dalton came to his Colorado K-8 school in an anti-Obama shirt calling the candidate “the terrorist’s best friend.” He was suspended for refusing to turn it inside out or change shirts. Having asked students to express a message with their clothing, the school can’t censor the message.

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  1. I guess someone will have to wear a “Jesus was Gay” t-shirt next year and see what happens 🙂

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    The school asked for red, white and blue T-shirts, not offensive T-shirts. Of course they can censor. For example, I have no doubt they’d censor a shirt that had profanity on it.

    I don’t have a firm opinion about whether they should have censored that one, but obviously the boy’s father was spoiling for a fight. It’s not like the kid pulled out his favorite T-shirt, which happened to say “Obama: the terrorists’ best friend.” The family made that T-shirt just to annoy people.

  3. I agree that the school has the right to censor. What have school officials taught students about free speech by how they exercising that right on provocative political speech?

  4. I’m offended by certain t-shirts every day. That doesn’t mean they should be banned. Tinker v. Des Moines, and all that.

    Government agencies should not be in the habit of censoring political views.

    And I’m no fan of Obama.

  5. Richard Nieporent says:

    Dan, you are been sarcastic, right?

    This topic is also being discussed on The Volokh Conspiracy blog:


    What I find so amusing is the hypocrisy of the people on the Left of the political spectrum who suddenly find a student’s right to free speech to be troubling. If the student had written an anti-Bush or anti-Palin comment they would have been against the school’s censorship of the student.

  6. Many schools have a “no words on clothing” policy (other than manufacturer names). No one has said this district has such a policy, but neither has anyone provided any evidence that the student was singled out because of his anti-Obama message. Using the word “censor” is premature without further information.

    The school claims that the shirt led to a fight on the playground before school:

  7. Shirt does not meet the criteria of being “offensive” per Guiles v. Marineau, 2006, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.


  8. PM, I find myself amused at all the left’s comparisons between Obama and Jesus.

  9. Lori, I’ve seen many right wingers sneeringly make that comparison but I haven’t seen any liberals do so. Could you point out a few?

  10. But on to the subject at hand. I’ve taught science at a 4,5,6 elementary for the last 14 years. Secondary before that. No way would I let a fifth grade kid walk into my classroom with that kind of t shirt on. I don’t care whose name is on it. That kind of name calling and semi-hate speech is not allowed m in my class. We will have civility in my classroom.

    And anyway, a certain amount of respect is due anyone that more or less half the country is going to vote for as president.

  11. if schools are allowed to censor “bong hits for jesus” messages why can’t they censor this?

  12. Richard Nieporent says:

    If schools are allowed to censor “bong hits for jesus” messages why can’t they censor this?

    Dave, read Eugene Volokh’s comments on The Volokh Conspiracy for the legal aspect’s to this type of censorship. according to Prof. Volokh it is the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) ruling that holds precedence for this type of case.

  13. Atlas,”Jesus was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate was a governor.” Google either phrase. I don’t know who started it, but Dems everywhere are quoting it in interviews. If you google “Obama Jesus” you’ll see more examples of Obama-Jesus comparisons by the left, not just this one… but you’ll have to sift through Obama’s speeches that mention Jesus, and of course a few right-wing sneerers.

    I happen to agree with you that our candidates deserve some respect. I just think it should go BOTH ways and maybe even include sitting Presidents.

    I don’t know where I’d draw the line in a public school, to be perfectly honest. Glad it’s not my decision.

  14. You know, if it were 40-50 years ago, this wouldn’t be an issue. It wouldn’t, because:

    a. school dress codes and social mores would not have permitted a t-shirt with slogans on it.

    b. the kid’s parents wouldn’t have considered it a clever and provocative thing to send their kid to school dressed like it

    and c. even if a or b had not prevented it, the kid probably would have been beaten up on the playground at lunchtime, learning that sometimes, you might WANT to say something, but sometimes that thing is unnecessary or uncalled for. (and yeah, yeah, yeah – freedom of speech. But kids are kids. And frankly, I hate the way politics has invaded every facet of American life, even the schoolyard.)

    I don’t know. My general attitude tends to be, “If the parents put him up to this, shame on them.” I don’t like parents using their kids as pawns in anything.

    And, for the record, I’d feel exactly the same way if the kid showed up in an anti-McCain or anti-Palin t-shirt.

  15. Okay, okay, make that 50 to 60 years ago.

    sometimes I forget that 1968 was 40 years ago. And my birth year will be 40 years ago next year.

  16. Yes, ricki–I can address 40 years ago from experience. I was fifteen. When I started high school (which was 10th grade at that time–we had Junior High’s not middle schools), the SDS was a school club in my high school. Another school club invited political candidates to speak after school. I recall my mother’s horror when I decided to leaflet for an anti-war candidate who was opposing the congressional rep that she had supported for years. The following year, after a year’s agitating by the Student Council, the school dress code was abolished. No more could girls be required to knee to see if their skirts met the requisite number of inches from the floor (was it 2? 4? I only remember how hard it was to sit in those minis before pantyhose were prevalent–keeping legs together and garters concealed). No more pulling boys’ hair forward to see if it covered the ears.

    I hand painted a sweatshirt that said “Jesus Saves Green Stamps.” (and I had never even heard of Barack Obama). And yes, my parents did find it amusing (and we were a church-going family). Our church youth group leader refused to dress her kids in red, white and blue one day as suggested by the school to signify patriotism (and by extension support of the Vietnam war).

    The dress code–when there still was one–specified that girls were to wear full slips underneath sweaters, and no white (as in go-go) boots. It was probably written a decade earlier. There were lots of social mores. I remember the ones that influenced people to throw rocks through the windows of the first black family to move into my white middle class neighborhood.

  17. Ah, Margo, those were the days. I went to Baylor when the girls had to be in the dorm by 8:30 PM. And forget about them being allowed to wear pants. Us guys wandered back to the dorm too. No point in being out if the girls are gone.

    Twas a more innocent time. Miss it in some ways.

  18. The courts have long decided that a student’s right to free expression (speech) especially in terms of clothing can be limited if it is deemed disruptive to the educational environment. That is exactly what happened in this case. According to the Denver Post:

    “While on the school playground that morning, Daxx and other students got into a shouting match over the shirt, Superintendent John Barry said.

    Barry said Daxx was not suspended for what he wore but because, according to school policy, “any type of attire which attracts undue attention to the wearer, and thus causes disturbance to the educational process, is in bad taste and not acceptable.”

    When the argument spilled into first-period math class, Daxx was sent to the principal’s office. He was given the option of turning the shirt inside out, wearing a shirt provided by the school or going home and changing into something else and coming back to class.

    Daxx didn’t like any of those options, so district officials suspended him.”

    Clearly, the disruptive element was relevant here, especially because the boy’s sister also wore an anti-Obama shirt, but she was not suspended because it didn’t create disruption, and she didn’t refuse options given by the administration to alleviate the situation.

    Sadly, this is an example of an eleven-year-old boy’s father exploiting his son – not to mention a non-partisan ceremony to honor Medal of Honor recipients – for his own political agenda.

    This is a true shame.

  19. Miller Smith says:

    Heckler’s Veto.

    According to some of you, if you wear a read, white and blue t-shirt to my school and I scream at you for wearing it, my administration can force you to remove it and that is the way you want things to be.

    That is not the law.

    That is a deeply immoral position.

    That is an un-American position.

    You teach the children to behave and have a conversation in a respectful manner or to ignor the red, white and blue t-shirt. You DO NOT nurse their sense of grievance over opinions expressed. Not in America you don’t!

    You grown-ups need to act like grown-ups.

  20. How is that statement on the shirt “semi-hate speech”? What is “semi-hate speech”, anyway? This is a violation of the kid’s 1st Amendment right.

    If the school didn’t want words on the shirts, then the school needed to ban all words. Including Nike and Polo. The kid’s parents might have been provocative, but so what? The school had no right to ask the kid to turn it inside out, change or anything else.

    And what if some kid didn’t feel all that patriotic? Did he or she get sent home to color up?

  21. “You teach the children to behave and have a conversation in a respectful manner or to ignor the red, white and blue t-shirt. You DO NOT nurse their sense of grievance over opinions expressed. Not in America you don’t!”

    Good point, Miller.

  22. Robert Wright says:

    Margo, nice post.

    Kate, I don’t agree. A school isn’t a place for unregulated public assembly. The street corner is, the public park is, the internet is, but not a school room where instruction is supposed to take place.

    There was a court ruling that said that students shouldn’t have to check their first amendment rights at the schoolhouse door.

    It’s a ruling that I don’t agree with.

    I think an enlightened school would allow and encourage individual expression of all kinds and at the same time teach tolerance and respect for different opinions.

    A really good school would have allowed that child to wear that shirt.

    To allow that kind of expression would be a good policy, in my opinion. But a right? No.

    Freedom of speech causes all kinds of conflict. We’re supposed to live with it. It’s a price we pay for having the right. But we shouldn’t have to pay for it by accepting conflict ridden schools.

  23. I wonder what the response would have been had the kid shown up with a “[principal’s name] sucks eggs” (or worse) on his t-shirt.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with a kid wearing a pro-McCain or pro-Obama t-shirt; it just seems to me that the kid is learning awfully early that “negative campaigning” makes the world go ’round.

    Maybe I’m too old fashioned but I was taught to show respect to other people, even people who are absent.

  24. Robert,

    The government cannot force a person to go to school and then simultaneously force them to leave their rights behind when they get there.

  25. Andy Freeman says:

    Fourth grader boys fight over lots of things. In fact, fighting is pretty much the natural state of fourth grade boys. As a result, it’s absurd to argue for banning this shirt because it was mentioned while they were fighting because they’d have been fighting over something else (and were the day before and after).

  26. It’s a shirt designed to be provocative. And I think some people here are pulling our legs and can’t possibly believe public schools should be some kind of absolute free-speech zones. Talk about reasons for vouchers… I can send my child to the school that teaches academic subjects in a controlled environment. And they can send theirs to the school of protesting the Man and righteous outrage.

  27. “I think an enlightened school would allow and encourage individual expression of all kinds and at the same time teach tolerance and respect for different opinions.”

    Well, you can’t have both, because they contradict each other. “Tolerance” silences. That’s its purpose. And individual expression of all kinds? Really? So if a kid stood up in class and decided to express himself by masturbating, that would be encouraged in an enlightened school?

    One of the many benefits of a Catholic school is uniforms.

  28. Miller T. Smith says:

    No one is advocating “absolute” freedom of expression in the public schools. The key point is that the Tinker Decision be followed and understood. Not even a good strawman.

    The key to this is the word “public.” Except for a very narrow band of expression, all expression is allowed. Some schools are requiring uniforms thinking that it will limit expression. It will not. There has already been a case to prove that point.

    A young boy was very upset at the actions of his principal and taped a message to the back of his uniform shirt saying, “Principal X violated my friend’s rights.” He was suspended for being “out of uniform.” He sued and won.

    The court made the decision with directions to the principal along these lines: You are an agent of the government. The students are citizens with all the rights of any other citizen with but a few exceptions. You must respect those rights or find a job that better suits you.

    As to the point that boy’s red, white and blue shirt made, one has to wonder why that bothered anyone at all. As the news has been coming out just today, a very good case can be made that such sentiments about Obama is very very true.

    Most of the supression of speach by government officials is that which they don’t want to be spread for personal reasons. The truth (maybe-maybe not) hurts and sometimes offends. You do not have a right to not be offended.

    See more about this very issue at the F.I.R.E. website to get a full read of the law. http://www.thefire.org/pdfs/free-speech.pdf is the place to start.

  29. Robert Wright says:

    I never thought of masturbation as an act of expression.

    If everything is expression, then nothing is. That’s the nature of definition.

    Obi, we’re talking about children, not “people.”

    Should children have the same rights as adults? Some people think so. I used to think so. But not anymore. We have to treat children like children. If we don’t, we’re guilty of parental neglect.

    Before my school adopted a uniform policy, boys would come to school with T-shirts promoting certain strip clubs.

    These boys needed to be told that that was inappropriate. By telling them nothing, it gave them tacit approval which was giving them the wrong message.

    I’m a great believer in freedom of speech. But I also believe it’s a crime of neglect to treat children as if they were adults.

  30. Charles R. Williams says:

    Many of these problems go away if there is a strict dress code or uniforms. Many of these problems go away if there is genuine school choice since the parents unhappy with arbitrary decisions of school administrators have genuine alternatives.

    The boy is guilty of insubordination and was rightly suspended. The school was right to tell him to turn the shirt inside out. As far as the T shirt is concerned it is factual. Some facts upset people. You cannot operate a school when the students are agitated over political disputes.

    What this incident illustrates is that the concept of freedom of speech is unworkable in a school setting. The only sensible way to protect the rights of students in these matters is to break the state monopoly on publicly funded schooling and tell unhappy students to go somewhere else that will take them.

  31. Our democracy cannot survive if we do not allow for a free market of ideas. You cannot have a free market of ideas without the First Amendment. And, of course, you cannot have the First Amendment without allowing freedom of expression, but here’s the catch––you have to allow freedom of expression even if you disagree with the content.That’s the only way to have that free market of ideas so essential to a democracy. If you don’t permit that and only allow one opinion, one expression, one viewpoint, why I think then we would be living in some place like… oh, I don’t know… try China.

    As educators, I believe it is imperative that we teach our children how to be good citizens and that includes exercising their First Amendment rights as well as recognizing the awesome responsibility that carries with it.

    And yes, I know that under Hazelwood schools have broader powers to censor school sponsored speech. And yes, I know the courts have given broad latitude in allowing schools to censor things that can cause a “substantial disruption” of the school day–things like a confederate flag for instance.

    I just fear that the more we try to stem the flow of ideas, the less chance we have of teaching our students how important freedom of expression is to the survival of our democracy. We have to be able to exchange ideas, discuss them, compromise when necessary, and then let the majority rule.

    If you feel as passionately as I do about the First Amendment and need more info on court cases etc. you should check out the Student Press Law Center’s website at http://www.splc.org. There’s a lot of good info there and many resources for teachers.

    I hope I didn’t ramble too much.

  32. Bellringer, you make good points of course. There will always be a balancing act between free expression and reasonable order. But that’s why they pay us the big bucks, to make those calls.

    These are ten and eleven year olds in the fifth grade. You must have some rules or you will have chaos. In my class you aren’t allowed to say hateful things about someone. That would include saying that someone is a terrorists best friend. Much as I enjoy these kids, I realize that they are only partially domesticated at this age. That must be taken into account.

    By the way, I think the whole red, white and blue day was a bad idea. I’m just surprised that the over the top reaction came from the far right rather than the far left.

  33. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    Let’s see if I got this right. Kid wears “provocative” t-shirt. Someone objects and hits him, kid with shirt is punished, kid who hit is not? Someone needs to poke that principal in the nose.

  34. I don’t think that throwing rocks through the windows of the first black family to move into a white neighborhood qualifies as a social more, but I could be wrong.