Vermont student wins free-speech case in federal appeals court
By Adam Silverman
Free Press Staff Writer
August 31, 2006
A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a Vermont middle school violated a student’s free-speech rights when administrators ordered the 13-year-old to cover up images on a shirt critical of President Bush, and then punished him when he refused.
The decision from a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York could prove a sweeping victory for the rights of students to political speech, lawyers said.
“This is a victory for free speech in schools in the United States generally,” said Stephen Saltonstall, one of two lawyers who represented student Zachary Guiles and his family in their lawsuit against school officials in Williamstown. “The ruling has broad national implications. It’s really a total victory for the First Amendment in schools.”
Williamstown School District attorney Tony Lamb said the ruling could lead to problems in educational settings.
“It calls into question the ability of a school district to regulate student dress at all,” he said. “It’s going to create significant problems for schools in Vermont.”
Guiles was 13 and a seventh-grader at Williamstown Middle/High School, and the 2004 presidential election was heating up, when that May he wore a shirt to school calling Bush “chicken-hawk-in-chief” and containing images of cocaine and a martini. The pictures were allusions to the president’s involvement with alcohol, and allegedly with drugs, when he was younger.
Guiles had been wearing the shirt about once a week since he purchased it at an anti-war rally that March, and another student “whose politics evidently were opposed to Guiles’s” and that student’s mother had complained to administrators, according to the court’s 26-page opinion.
A school official, citing the dress code ban on apparel depicting drugs or alcohol, then presented Guiles three options: turn the shirt inside out, tape over all images and words referring to drugs and alcohol, or change clothes. Guiles refused, and he was sent home.
The Guiles family filed a lawsuit against the official, the school’s principal and the district superintendent. Judge William Sessions III, a federal judge who presides in Burlington, upheld the school’s dress code in December 2004. The Guileses, working with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed an appeal.
Ten months after the three judges heard arguments in the appeal, they agreed that the school went too far.
“The pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey, accentuating the anti-drug (and anti-Bush) message,” Judge Richard Cardamone wrote in the opinion. “By covering them defendants diluted Guiles’s message, blunting its force and impact.”
Lamb called the opinion disappointing.
“What we’re trying to do is create a position where we don’t allow images of drugs and alcohol at all,” he said. “This court says we can’t do that, and that’s wrong.”
The school district has several options, Lamb said, including asking the full 2nd Circuit — 12 judges — to hear arguments in the case, or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The School Board plans to meet soon and consider its next steps.
Guiles, now 15 and about to begin his junior year of high school at an arts academy in Michigan, said he still owns the controversial T-shirt and wears it occasionally, though less than he did in 2004.
“I’ve sort of evolved in my criticisms of Bush,” he said. “It’s more in terms of policies rather than his past decisions.”
Guiles called the appeals court’s ruling “just.”
“It means that there is free speech for students,” he said. “You don’t leave your rights at the schoolhouse gates.” Contact Adam Silverman at 660-1854 or [email protected]