In what the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is calling a "groundbreaking decision," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Monday upheld an injunction preventing the Easton Area School District from enforcing a ban on breast cancer awareness bracelets that read, "I (heart) boobies! (KEEP A BREAST)."
The decision marks the first time a federal appeals court has ruled student commentary on political or social issues is protected by the First Amendment, even if that speech contains language that some could consider lewd.
"The First Amendment protects schools as a space where students are free to discuss important issues like breast cancer and talk about their bodies in positive terms," ACLU of Pennsylvania executive director Reggie Shuford said in a statement.
"The court’s decision today is an important reminder to school administrators that they can’t punish students for speaking out just because their speech might be uncomfortable or misunderstood."
The ACLU of Pennsylvania first filed the suit in November 2010 on behalf of Easton Area Middle School students Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk.
The girls, then seventh and eight graders, respectively, were suspended for wearing the "I (heart) boobies" rubber bracelets on the school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
A federal judge last April issued an injunction preventing the school from enforcing the ban after finding it violated the students' First Amendment right to free speech.
But the school appealed the injunction, arguing the bracelets ban should be upheld because the slogan could be misinterpreted as "lewd" and might offend some members of the school community or disrupt school activities.
The appeals court, in what the ACLU called "a rare move reflecting the important and complex First Amendment issues in the case," granted an en banc review so the full court could weigh in, rather than the three-judge panel that typically hears each case.
Attorney Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania in February argued the case before 14 court of appeals judges.
Nine of those judges agreed the Easton Area School District violated the First Amendment when it suspended the bracelet sporting students.
"The majority’s opinion recognizes that teens, like adults, must be free to speak and learn about important issues that affect them – even issues, like breast cancer, that make school administrators uncomfortable," Roper said in a statement.