Law & Courts

‘Hitler Youth’ Button Ruling Upsets N.J. School District

By Mark Walsh — October 02, 2007 1 min read
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School administrators in Bayonne, N.J., had no problem with students’ expressing dissent over a new school uniform policy, their lawyer said last week.

It was the backdrop of a historical photo of Hitler Youth members—used in a protest button—that was inappropriate, he said.

“It’s an offensive image,” said Robert J. Merryman, the district’s lawyer. “Anybody who knows anything about the Hitler Youth would know it’s the Hitler Youth.”

There is no dispute that it is indeed members of the Hitler Youth depicted on the buttons worn by two 5th grade boys last year in two Bayonne elementary schools to protest a uniform policy that requires khaki pants and polo shirts with school logos. The boys were threatened with suspension, prompting their parents to sue the district on First Amendment free-speech grounds.

U.S. District Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr., of Newark, N.J., on Sept. 17 granted a preliminary injunction allowing the boys to wear the buttons in school. He ruled that it was substantially likely that the families’ free-speech claim would prevail.

The judge noted that the buttons contained no swastikas or “sieg heil” imagery. He called the photo “innocuous” and said the rows of young men in uniform “might easily be mistaken for a historical photograph of the Boy Scouts.”

Because the buttons had not caused disruption at school, they were likely protected speech under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Judge Greenaway said.

Mr. Merryman said the board of the 9,200-student Bayonne district was still weighing whether to appeal the ruling.

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