EASTON, PA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit today on behalf of two Easton Area School District (EASD) students claiming that EASD's ban on wearing rubber bracelets with the phrase "I ♥ Boobies! (Keep A Breast)" violates the girls' First Amendment right to free speech. The ACLU is asking a federal judge to issue an emergency injunction against the district's bracelet ban and to lift punishment imposed on the girls, which forbids their participation in extra-curricular activities, including a dance this Friday evening.
"These girls have had people close to them affected and killed by breast cancer and they want to raise other students' awareness about this vitally important health concern," said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Schools have some leeway to limit what students say in school, but that should not extend to banning expression about something as important as breast cancer."
Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk, seventh and eighth graders, respectively, at Easton Area Middle School, were suspended for wearing "I ♥ Boobies!" bracelets on the school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day. They and many other students had been wearing the bracelets since school started in September, with no disruption to the school. In mid-October, the school told the students to turn their bracelets inside out and then on October 25 announced that the bracelets would no longer be permitted in the building. Both girls, with knowledge and permission of their mothers, wore their bracelets to school on October 28 - the school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day. The assistant principal suspended the two girls for the rest of the day and the following day.
The bracelets are part of a national campaign by The Keep A Breast Foundation (KAB), a six-year-old nonprofit organization whose mission is to help eradicate breast cancer by educating young people on methods of prevention, early detection and support. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in young women under the age of 40, but many young people mistakenly believe that breast cancer is a problem for older women. Although the incidence of breast cancer in young women is much lower than that of older women, young women's breast cancers are generally more aggressive and are diagnosed at a later stage, resulting in lower survival rates.
"Seeing a bracelet with "I Love Boobies!" on it is a conversation starter that leads to discussion and awareness of issues affecting young people," said Kimmy McAtee, KAB's director of PR and marketing. "We encourage people to use the bracelets as an opportunity to start a conversation about breast cancer prevention, body image, early detection, and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle."
In a letter to the editor published in the Easton Express Times on November 3, Brianna wrote that, "I feel my right to freedom of speech was violated, as I was expressing my care and concern toward this disease that has affected millions of women of all ages."
The ACLU sent a letter to the EASD solicitor on November 4, 2010, explaining that Kayla and Brianna had a constitutional right to wear the bracelets because they did not disrupt the school and were not lewd, profane or indecent. On Friday afternoon, November 11, the district denied the ACLU's request, arguing that some students and teachers were offended and that some boys were making fun of girls' breasts.
Carl W. Hittinger, an attorney with the Philadelphia office of the law firm DLA Piper, LLP (US), which is co-counseling the case with the ACLU-PA, noted that, "If some students respond inappropriately to the girls' health-conscious message, the school should discipline the rude students and not censor the responsible young ladies."
Today's suit asks for an immediate end to the ban on the bracelets, to remove the suspension from the girls' records, and to restore their ability to attend school events, including this Friday's dance. The suit does not ask for damages.
Lawyers in the case are, in addition to Roper and Hittinger, Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of PA, ACLU of PA legal fellow M. M. Tack-Hooper, DLA Piper, LLC (US) lawyers Monique Myatt Galloway and Nathan P. Heller, and Seth Kreimer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
- More information about the case, including a copy of the lawsuit