PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Two middle-school students say they were suspended and banned from attending a school dance because they wore “I [Heart] Boobies” bracelets to promote discussion about breast cancer.
Plaintiffs B.H. and K.M. sued the Easton Area School District Middle School anonymously through their mothers, Jennifer Hawk and Amy McDonald-Martinez, in Federal Court.
B.H., a 13-year-old student in the eighth grade, says she saw her friends at school wearing the rubber bracelets and bought one “to honor a close friend of her family who had died of the disease.”
“Since wearing the bracelet, B.H. has learned of many more people — including teachers and friends at school — who have lost family members to breast cancer, because wearing the bracelets leads to conversation about the disease,” according to the complaint.
K.M., a 12-year-old student in seventh grade, says she bought a bracelet “to show her concern over breast cancer and to honor the memory of her recently deceased aunt, who had breast cancer.”
Though some teachers were opposed to the bracelets, and told students to wear them inside-out or remove them, the girls say the bracelets never disrupted class time or caused out-of-school disruptions.
When the school announced that all “I [Heart] Boobies” bracelets must be turned inside-out, a teacher complained that the inside of the bracelet says “keep-a-breast.org,” and the school administration announced that the bracelets were banned, according to the lawsuit.
The girls say the bracelets, produced by the Keep a Breast Foundation, help young people overcome embarrassment and confront body-image taboos, which is important in empowering young women to check their breasts for signs of cancer.
When B.H. and K.M. continued to wear the bracelets after the ban, they were suspended and told they could not attend the middle school dance on Nov. 19.
“The ‘I [Heart] Boobies’ campaign, which has spread nationally, is designed to reach young people in a language that they will find more fun and less threatening than other discussions about breast cancer, and is intended to engage young people in dialogue about early detection and treatment for what is the leading cause of death among women under age 40,” the complaint states.
The girls say dozens of students have worn the bracelets throughout the fall without serious incident, and the school can’t prove that the bracelets have caused any disruption. They say the bracelets do not fall under the category of dress that expresses a lewd or indecent slogan, which is banned by the school’s dress code.
“In refusing plaintiffs’ request to rescind the ban, the school has justified it by claiming that some students are ‘uncomfortable when learning about and discussing human sexuality topics,’ that the bracelets apparently prompted some male students to make inappropriate comments about girls’ breasts, and that some staff members were ‘offended’ by the bracelets,” according to the complaint.
“But the First Amendment does not allow schools to censor students’ speech merely because some students and teachers are offended by the non-vulgar educational message, and silencing the speakers because other students may react inappropriately would amount to a constitutionally impermissible heckler’s veto.”
B.H. and K.M. seek damages and an injunction for alleged civil rights violations. They are represented by Mary Roper with the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania.