Pennsylvania High School Lets Student Wear Anti-Bush T-Shirt After All

ACLU threatened legal action against school forbidding 'International Terrorist' tee.

Chris Schiano may only be 15, but he knows his constitutional rights. And he's not afraid to fight for them.

The student at Landsdale, Pennsylvania's North Penn High School has been allowed to wear his favorite T-shirt to school again, two months after administrators told him he couldn't.

In October, when Schiano wore the shirt with a picture of President Bush framed by the words "International Terrorist," a school security guard approached him at lunchtime and said he had to take it off. A defiant Schiano said he would not, so he was sent to an assistant principal's office.

Again refusing to take the shirt off, Schiano was forced to sit in the principal's office for the rest of the school day and sent home with the message that his shirt was not welcome in North Penn's halls. Aware that his First Amendment rights were being violated, Schiano told his mom about the incident and they contacted the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I was with him when he bought the shirt and he got it to protest because he totally disagrees with how Bush is running the country," said Schiano's mom, Lisa Wildman. "We didn't think it would be an issue at school because we read about other cases about it on the ACLU Web site. We thought the issue was settled and we never thought it would happen again."

In 2003 a school in Dearborn, Michigan, with a majority Arab-American student population ordered a 16-year-old to either take his "International Terrorist" shirt off or be sent home from school (see "Anti-War T-Shirts Land Teens, Lawyer In Hot Water"). Bretton Barber, who said he wore the shirt to express his anti-war position, chose to go home. In that case, at the urging of the ACLU, a judge affirmed Barber's right to wear the shirt.

"It was our call and we weren't going to allow something that was potentially disruptive in our halls," North Penn Principal Burt Hynes said. "Part of our job is to prevent things from occurring, rather than just reacting to them. Our action was preventative. Young people can find enough issues to argue with each other about and they don't necessarily have all the controls when an argument gets heated. If it's a political debate, it's healthy in a social studies class, but we try to keep it out of the hallways."

Though Hynes said some students did take issue with the shirt, there were no complaints on the day Schiano was pulled from class. In the days following the incident, Hynes said students engaged in a vigorous discussion about the shirt, with some saying they thought it was OK to wear to school and others thinking it was disruptive to the school and "disrespectful of the office of the president."

But Lisa Wildman said the message she got from Hynes was not as clear-cut.

"Mr. Hynes said it was offensive to the president, and I told him it was a violation of my son's First Amendment rights," Wildman said. "I asked if they allowed patriotic shirts or if they would discourage a gay-rights shirt. And he said they allowed shirts with patriotic messages. So, if they allowed one side, I said they had to allow my son's shirt, too."

Once it was clear that Hynes would not budge, Wildman said the ACLU wrote the school district a letter on her son's behalf, which they ignored. It wasn't until the ACLU wrote a second letter threatening legal action that the district faxed a letter on November 17 saying the shirt was OK to wear.

The 3,400-student public high school has a dress code that forbids message shirts advocating violence, containing ethnically intimidating or offensive remarks or references to drugs, alcohol, sex or weapons, according to Hynes. But, "because we allow message shirts to be worn, we have to allow ones with political messages," the principal said. "To deny that would be to deny his free-speech rights."

Wildman said her son has since worn the shirt to school often and there have been no problems, only positive comments.