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Court Says Public School Can’t Ban ‘Co-Ed Naked’ T-Shirts

Matt Bai The Boston Globe

Co-ed naked marching bands at the Massachusetts public school are still definitely out. But the T-shirts can stay.

Essentially putting to rest a three-year legal battle that pitted two brothers against a school system, the state Supreme Judicial Court said last week that South Hadley High School did not have the right to ban a T-shirt administrators said was vulgar.

The T-shirt - bearing the slogan “Co-ed Band - Do it to the Rhythm” - could only have been outlawed if it incited an actual disruption, the justices said.

But at a time when teens are skirmishing with school officials throughout the country over everything from baseball caps to nose rings to proposed uniforms, last Thursday’s decision seemed unlikely to put to rest the decades-old war over what is appropriate dress in a public school.

Karen Northrup, whose 16-year-old daughter was forbidden from wearing a nose ring to Carver High School in Boston, said she would sieze on the decision to try to have her daughter reinstated to the school, nose ring and all.

Northrup’s daughter, Casie, spent last year at a public school in Plymouth. But Northrup has been notified that now she must either move to that town or send her daughter back to Carver High without the nose ring.

“It a form of expression, just like when I was younger, long hair was a form of expression,” Northrup, 39, said. “I think we have a fighting chance because of this new precedent.”

Others said the court’s decision guaranteed free speech - not free dress - and that schools could continue to ban clothing as long as they did not ban the sentiments depicted on it.

“If the school had said they weren’t allowing any T-shirts, I don’t think it would be an issue,” said Robert V. Antonucci, the state’s commissioner of education. For example, some schools have banned all hats, he said.

The South Hadley controversy started innocently enough in 1993 when Jeffrey Pyle, the newly-elected drum major of the marching band, wore the shirt his mother had given him for Christmas.

When his gym teacher ordered him to turn it inside out, Pyle, now a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, refused.

He and his younger brother, Jonathan, then set out to protest the school’s dress code by wearing other T-shirts deemed offensive. They sued the school system later that year and lost in federal court.

But a federal appeals court threw out that verdict and asked the state’s high court for an opinion based on the state’s Free Expression Law. That opinion is not binding, but lawyers said the federal appeals court is likely to heed it.

The justices’ decision harkened back to a precedent set in federal court in 1969, when the court ruled that students in Des Moines could wear black arm bands to protest the war in Vietnam.

William C. Newman, the lawyer who brought the case on behalf of the Pyles and the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the goal of the suit was to get school officials to talk to students or parents about offensive clothing rather than banning it outright.

“Censorship is the last resort, not the first reaction,” Newman said. “If the teacher talks to the student, that would solve the problem most of the time.”

South Hadley school officials and the former principal of the high school declined comment last week, saying they had not had time to read the ruling.

State Rep. John C. Klimm (D-Barnstable), the author of a bill that would authorize public school districts to impose dress codes, including mandatory uniforms, said the court’s decision would galvanize support for his measure.

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