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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Boobies and ta-tas and racks (oh, my)

I've written previously about recurring controversies over students wearing breast-cancer awareness "I (Heart) Boobies" bracelets in public schools. In April, a judge on the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that a district ban on the bracelets violated the First Amendment. A new controversy has arisen in White Cloud, Michigan, where four high school students were suspended when they refused to remove their bracelets; on Monday, the school board held a public meeting and heard from parents and students about the dispute, as it tries to figure out whether to overturn the suspension. The ACLU also has entered the mix, so litigation is likely. A couple of interesting things in this case.

First, the school permits clothing for breast-cancer awareness containing other slang terms for breasts, including "ta-tas," "funbags," and "rack." The superintendant has said he considers those OK, if borderline, but that boobies is a step too far. I think he is going to have a really hard time explaining that difference as anything beyond his sort-of-inexplicable personal preference. Especially since many would find "funbags" and "rack" more offensive than boobies, which, as one parent stated at the meeting, is really an infantile term. In the Pennsylvania case, the judge noted that the school had announced the ban over the school PA system by actually using the word "boobie," which, the court said, cast doubt on the school's insistence that the word is vulgar. Similarly, the school will have to explain how "boobies" is vulgar when all these other slang terms are not--and I doubt it can.

Second, in response to the suspensions, students hung flyers in the school discussing the Pennsylvania decision and its meaning; school officials removed those flyers. The posting of the flyers would appear to be pure political expression, protected even in public schools and even after Morse. On the other hand would be the question of the status of the school's walls and bulletin boards as fora for student speech and whether pulling the signs down was impermissible content discrimination or something else. This could be an interesting side issue in any litigation. But it also is a unique civics lesson for the students: Government and those in power will often do really petty things to avoid criticism. Although perhaps that is not the lesson the school wants to teach.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 21, 2011 at 10:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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Wow, that distinction sure is arbitrary. I will say as a woman that funbags is about a hundred times more offensive than boobies, if we're going to rank these terms. I would also wager a guess that no woman has ever used that word of her own accord-- it's a word only men use to describe women's breasts. (My own extreme reaction is just further evidence of how subjective is the categorizing of these words as acceptable or inappropriate, of course.)

Posted by: junior mint | Dec 21, 2011 11:49:04 AM

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