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Published in Print: March 28, 2001, as Supreme Court Lets Stand Ruling That Gives Schools Right To Restrict T-Shirts

Supreme Court Lets Stand Ruling That Gives Schools Right To Restrict T-Shirts

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a high school student who was barred from wearing Marilyn Manson T-shirts to school.

The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of Nicolas J. Boroff, who was a 17-year-old senior at Van Wert High School in Ohio in 1997 when he got into trouble for wearing T-shirts of the Gothic rock group, whose lead singer also performs under the name Marilyn Manson.

The high court's action in Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education (Case No. 00-1020) is not a ruling on the merits of the case. But it leaves in place a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit (Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education) in Cincinnati, that strongly backs the right of public school administrators to prohibit clothing they deem objectionable. The 6th Circuit covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Mr. Boroff's appeal argued that Van Wert High administrators had allowed students to wear T-shirts for such heavy-metal groups as Slayer and Megadeth. But when Mr. Boroff showed up in a Marilyn Manson shirt, he was told to remove it, turn it inside out, or go home.

The shirt depicted a three-face image of Jesus Christ with the statement: "See No Truth. Hear No Truth. Speak No Truth." On the back was the word "believe," with the letters "lie" standing out in a different color.

Mr. Boroff returned to school three more days wearing different Marilyn Manson T-shirts, and was sent home each time. His mother filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Toledo claiming that the school's actions had violated her son's First Amendment right of free speech. Mr. Boroff never returned to Van Wert High.

Religious Mockery?

The Boroffs lost in the district court and the 6th Circuit court. A panel of the appellate court ruled 2-1 last year that the school had the authority to prohibit T-shirts that "contain symbols and words that promote values that are so patently contrary to the school's educational mission."

The appellate court described the appearance of the lead singer, Brian Warner, as "ghoulish and creepy," and it cited interviews in which he appeared to have admitted using illegal drugs.

"The record demonstrates that the school prohibited Boroff's Marilyn Manson T-shirts generally because this particular rock group promotes disruptive and demoralizing values, which are inconsistent with and counterproductive to education," the 6th Circuit majority said.

The dissenting judge said it appeared from the evidence that the principal of Van Wert High, William Clifton, had barred the Jesus shirt because it mocked a religious figure. The principal's action could be "viewpoint discrimination," which the First Amendment prohibits, the judge said.

"From Principal Clifton's explanation, it would not be unreasonable to presume that if the T- shirt had depicted Jesus in a positive light, it would not have been considered offensive," said U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald L. Gilman.

The judge also said he didn't find the T-shirts vulgar or offensive under the Supreme Court's cases on school speech.

Vol. 20, Issue 28, Page 29

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • "Disagreeing Over Dress," from the American School Boards Journal, January 2001, looks at the issue of whether schools can restrict student expression because it conflicts with the values they want to instill. The ASBJ also hosts a school law archive.
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