Global anti-war protests have recently drawn hundreds of thousands into
peaceful demonstrations in the streets. But, over the past three weeks, from
Michigan to New York to Chicago, students have been warned and suspended, and
one adult arrested, for expressing their anti-war and anti-Arab-discrimination sentiments on the most American of forums, the T-shirt.
On February 17, Dearborn High School junior Bretton Barber was asked, and he refused,
to remove a shirt with a photo of President Bush and the words
"International Terrorist" when administrators at his Michigan school feared
the shirt might disrupt classes.
Lebanese-American Finley Junior High School eighth grader Ian Itani was
suspended from his suburban Chicago school two days later for wearing a
T-shirt that featured a drawing of the twin towers, an airplane and a man in
a traditional Arab headdress. Itani's shirt, according to his mother, was a
response to taunting from his classmates.
Last Friday, 17-year-old junior David Dial was suspended from his
Broomfield, Colorado, high school for one day for posting fliers promoting
Wednesday's "Books Not Bombs" international student walkout (see "Anti-War Movement Rallies Round The Web"). Though he was
told he was not allowed to post the flyer in the school's hallways, Dial did
so anyway and administrators, citing the same disruption of school activities
policies, gave him the suspension, according to the Denver Post.
Lawyer Stephen Downs was arrested at the Crossgates Mall in Guilderland,
New York, on Monday and charged with trespassing after refusing to remove a
T-shirt, made and purchased in the mall, which featured the phrase "Peace on
Earth" on the front and "Give Peace a Chance" on the back. After security
guards were unable to convince Downs to either leave the mall or remove the
shirt bearing the John Lennon-inspired phrase, they summoned the local
police, who arrested and handcuffed Downs, the director of the Albany office of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The arrest of Downs has already drawn offers from the American Civil
Liberties Union to help defend the case, but an ACLU spokesperson said the
three school cases are a legacy of a previous generation's anti-war protests.
Because many schools have codes of conduct that include rules against wearing
clothing that is either disruptive or distracting to the educational process,
cases such as Itani's and Barber's are fairly common, said Donna Lieberman,
executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Whether it is a Marilyn Manson shirt or one with an anti-war message, these
students often pay the price for wearing their hearts on their sleeves (or
chests). "He was asked to not wear that particular shirt and he chose to go
home," David Mustonen, communications director for the Dearborn Public
School system, said of Barber's case, citing the school board's policy on
disruptive clothing. "There was no suspension or disciplinary action."
Mustonen said straight-A student Barber, who returned to school the next day
without incident, was asked to remove the shirt after an assistant principal
received comments from unspecified persons who "did not favor the shirt." A
spokesperson for the Michigan ACLU said the organization might soon get
involved in a legal filing in Barber's case. "There was no disruption of
school business. He wore the shirt for three hours with no incident. This
[shirt] is truly protected political speech," said the ACLU's Wendy
The issue of student anti-war protests in schools came of age during another
controversial military action, the Vietnam conflict, when a trio of Des
Moines, Iowa, students took their cause of protesting the war all the way to
the Supreme Court. In Tinker Vs. Des Moines Independent School District
(1969), 15-year-old John F. Tinker, his younger sister Mary Beth and
16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt fought for their right to wear black
armbands as a silent protest against the war.
The school board banned such protests, the students refused to remove the
armbands and they were told to leave school and not return until they
complied with the school's policies. The district was eventually found guilty
by the Supreme Court of denying the students' First Amendment rights. As a
result, students' rights to free expression were broadened following the
decision, though many schools now have "disruptive" clothing rules in their
codes of conduct.
That explains why officials in Chicago Ridge told 14-year-old Itani's mother
that his homemade shirt had to go. The shirt, which featured a black marker
drawing of the towers and an airplane on the front and a bearded man in an
Arabic headdress on the back, could be seen as a "promotion of terrorism,"
according to school officials, quoted in an Associated Press report.
Colleen Itani said her son was attempting to show his peers that not all
Arabs are to blame for the September 11 attacks.
School superintendent Bernard Jumbeck would not comment on the issue.
"Everywhere I go people call us camels because of what happened," Ian
Itani said in the Associated Press report. "So I put (the drawing) on my
shirt to tell them who did it and to say that me and my Arab friends didn't
The walkout Colorado student Dial was supporting was part of a National Youth
and Student Peace Coalition-sponsored event in which students on 200 campuses
worldwide walked out of classes at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.
"It's not like we're promoting violence or any kind or discrimination," Dial
told the Denver Post. "It's just a peaceful protest against the war in Iraq."
Administrators objected to the promotion of a walkout and offered to let Dial
post the fliers elsewhere.
"The backdrop to this is a climate of hostility to civil liberties," Lieberman said. "The Bush administration has launched a broadside against civil
liberties in ways never imagined just two years ago and attacks on free
speech are happening in schools, at the mall and on the street."
Lieberman said the arrest of 60-year-old lawyer Downs (his 31-year-old son agreed to
remove his shirt, which read "No War With Iraq" and "Let Inspections Work")
was troubling because, while a mall is a private entity, it often benefits
from and uses city services and is seen by many as a community gathering
place. The precedent set in the arrest, she said, was disturbing to civil
libertarians. "It's as if the Yankees wouldn't allow you in to a game if you
were wearing a Mets cap," Lieberman said.
James R. Murley, chief of the Guilderland Police Department, said officers
spent an hour trying to convince Downs to follow the example of his son and
remove his shirt, but the lawyer refused. "The mall has it posted that
certain apparel that is considered disruptive is prohibited," according to
Murley, who said Downs is facing a maximum of 15 days in jail.
One hundred anti-war demonstrators marched through the mall Wednesday to
protest the arrest, saying they would not stop until the charges were
dropped. Later in the day, mall officials asked for the charges to be
dropped, according to the Associated Press.