The American Civil Liberties Union of Western Michigan will file a brief on behalf of a
student suspended for wearing a Korn T-shirt to school earlier this year, an ACLU official
said Wednesday (Dec. 30). The student, 19-year-old Eric VanHoven, filed a federal civil
suit against the Zeeland, Mich., school district in October.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for the suspension as well as an injunction against
the district's ban on clothing bearing the names of artists who are associated with
"obscenity, violence, drugs, alcohol or sexual innuendo."
Tom Schram, director of public education for the ACLU's Michigan office, said it was
unfair for the school district to single out such groups as the metal band Korn or shock
rocker Marilyn Manson with its ban. "It's a straight First Amendment, free-speech issue,"
"The school has no policy banning T-shirts for bands -- you could wear a Dave Matthews
Band shirt or a Rolling Stones shirt [without reprisal]," Schram said.
The Western Michigan chapter intends to file its friend-of-the-court brief before a
preliminary conference in the case that is scheduled for Jan. 20.
Zeeland High School assistant principal Gretchen Plewes suspended VanHoven for two
days in March for wearing a T-shirt bearing only the name "Korn." Before the end of the
year, Korn shirts landed him a total of seven days of suspension. In the days following
VanHoven's initial punishment, other students were sent home for wearing shirts with the
names of Marilyn Manson and the industrial group Filter.
"There is nothing obscene about the word 'Korn,' " Schram said. "It does not in my mind,
or in the mind of any reasonable person, bring obscene thoughts to my head."
VanHoven filed suit Oct. 21 against the Zeeland Public School District, the local school
board, superintendent Gary Feenstra, Zeeland High principal James Hatch and Plewes,
according to a clerk at the U.S. District Court in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The suit claims the suspension resulted in "emotional distress, mental anguish and
humiliation," according to a story published Tuesday by United Press
International. The same story reported VanHoven has since dropped out of school.
His mother, Lois Wiersma, referred all inquiries to his lawyer, Kary Love. Love, who has
worked with the local ACLU in the past, did not return calls for this story.
Hatch said Wednesday he was aware of the suit but could not comment on pending
litigation. School district spokesman Jim Camenga described the dress code as
"sufficient and operational," but he offered no further comment.
"The issue is not Korn shirts," Plewes told SonicNet Music News of the World last
spring. "The issue is not Marilyn Manson shirts. The issue is keeping the same standards
of attire for everyone in our high school."
In May, a student committee recommended that the district ban all music-related attire,
but the school board declined to adopt that plan.
Similar cases are pending in at least two other states.
Last week, a 16-year-old Rhode Island student appealed two suspensions for wearing a
White Zombie T-shirt featuring the number 666, a figure some Christians consider
offensive. That case, before a state hearing officer, was adjourned until next month.
And in Kentucky, a judge is expected to rule in January on the appeal of a woman who
was fined $250 in April for wearing a Marilyn Manson shirt in public. The shirt bore the
phrase, "I am the god of f---," a line from Manson's song "Cake and Sodomy."
Korn -- known for such raw songs as "All in The Family" (RealAudio excerpt) --
will begin a month-and-a-half-long co-headlining tour with Rob Zombie (born Rob
Straker) on Feb. 26 in Tucson, Ariz.