Precocious maybe, but a group of gifted students showed little merit in a lawsuit they brought against the Chicago school system, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Twenty-four 8th graders in Beaubien Elementary School’s program for the gifted in 2003 contended in the suit that their principal violated their First Amendment free-speech rights by disciplining them for wearing T-shirts they had designed.
The students were protesting what they claimed was an unfair vote for a T-shirt design to be worn by all the school’s 8th graders in the 2002-03 school year.
There were tensions between students in the 8th grade gifted program, which draws students from all over Chicago, and neighborhood students at the 1,000-student school, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner, a member of the three-judge panel considering the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, noted in his opinion.
The gifted students referred to themselves as “gifties” and sometimes to the other students as “tards,” for “retards,” Judge Posner wrote in a unanimous Feb. 20 opinion.
Michael D. Brandt, a student in the gifted program, submitted to the contest his cartoon of a grinning student giving a “thumbs-up” sign and walking Beaubien Elementary’s bulldog mascot.
Gifted students in Chicago were disciplined for wearing T-shirts with this design, after it failed to win a school contest. The students contended their free-speech rights were violated, but a federal appeals court disagreed.
The “gifties” voted as a bloc for Mr. Brandt’s design for the 8th grade class T-shirt—which would ensure a win, they thought, because the 72 other 8th graders would presumably spread their votes across 29 other designs. But the teacher in charge unexpectedly held a runoff vote for the three most popular designs, including Mr. Brandt’s. With a field of three, the gifted students’ bloc-voting scheme failed.
So Mr. Brandt had his design printed on T-shirts with the words “Gifties 2003” added to the back.
The gifted students wore the shirts to school, in defiance of Beaubien’s principal, who said that would be disrespectful and possibly disruptive.
The students were punished by being kept out of gym and lab classes and by being barred from after-school activities on nine days when at least one of them wore the shirt. Later, the principal, on the advice of a school intervention team, decided to allow the T-shirt. Nonetheless, the students asked in their suit that school officials be barred from telling anyone about the incident, such as colleges or potential employers.
In his opinion for the court’s ruling against the suit, Judge Posner slyly gave the “gifties” credit for intelligence.
“But craftily,” he said, “they first wore the forbidden shirt on the day when citywide tests were administered to public school students. They figured the school would not take disciplinary action against them on that day lest that lower the school’s average test scores (they are gifties, after all).”
Judge Posner said there had been no constitutional violation: “[T]he picture and the few words imprinted on the Brandt T-shirt are no more expressive of an idea or opinion that the First Amendment might be thought to protect than a young child’s talentless infantile drawing which Brandt’s design successfully mimics.”
The judge gave some credit to the students’ contention that the T-shirts became protected expression because they were worn as part of a protest against the class T-shirt vote.
“But the importance of context cuts both ways,” the judge wrote. “The protesters in this case are … privileged schoolchildren in a school that contains a majority of nonprivileged children. They insist that unless their T-shirt is adopted by the entire 8th grade, they will as it were secede, and flaunt their own T-shirt. They do not recognize the principal’s authority or the legitimacy of the school’s procedures for determining the winner of contests.”
The 7th Circuit court panel ordered the students to pay the 420,000-student Chicago district’s legal costs of $10,556.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week