Schools bans peace signs during protest

Peace signs — the ubiquitous symbol of the 1960s — have been banned at South Whidbey High School when used to protest the Iraq War.

Students wore homemade T-shirts listing soldiers killed in Iraq to school Tuesday to mark the three-year anniversary of the war. They were told they could keep wearing their shirts, but had to use masking tape to cover peace signs and any anti-war slogans.

School officials say the move was made to prevent disruptions at South Whidbey High, but the Seattle chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says the school’s decision is violating the students’ right to free speech.

“We want to avoid political statements that can cause unrest and unease. Some students may not agree with the message,” said Mike Johnson, principal at the high school.

“A peace sign by itself is not the issue,” Johnson said. “A peace sign with the list of names of soldiers who have died during the Iraq war there is the issue.”

“The combination could possibly create a distraction,” he added. “My responsibility is protecting the populace.”

For some students, the ban marked a noteworthy start to their effort to create new group to focus on political issues.

A small group of students have formed the Young Democrats Club, and it was their idea to pen the names of soldiers killed in Iraq on oversized white T-shirts to commemorate the third anniversary of the war.

The administration gave them permission to do that, and 20 students wore the shirts on Tuesday.

The students had added anti-war slogans and peace signs to the shirts, but were told to cover signs and slogans with blue masking tape. Only the number of the dead — numbers now more than 2,300 — and soldiers’ names were allowed to be displayed.

Administrators said the shirts had the potential to create unease and disrupt the educational process.

Johnson said the school has encouraged students to debate the issue in the right setting.

Other than the peace signs, students were also not allowed to have any anti-war symbols, dollar figures or statements such as “How many more?”

A spokesman from the American Civil Liberties Union said the high school’s decision violates the students’ rights to free speech.

“The decision can’t be based on speculation,” said Paul Honig, spokesman for the ACLU. “Courts have consistently said school administration can’t speculate that an instance might be disruptive. They have to prove that what the students are doing will materially interfere with the educational process.”

Honig said differing political views are not enough to ban political statements.

The students said they were not trying to create controversy by highlighting those killed in the war.

Bill Harper, president of the newly formed club, said the administration has been supportive of the club.

“The school administration has been exceptionally accommodating and understanding in creating the club and this T-shirt project,” Harper said.

“Of course, I was disappointed to hear the that we could not have the peace and anti-war symbols, but I chose not to fight it because of all the support we have received from the administration in forming this organization,” said Harper, speaking for himself.

Honig pointed to two court cases that guarantee students the right to free speech.

In Michigan last fall, a court ruled in favor of a student who wanted to wear a shirt bearing the resemblance of George Bush with the phrase

“International Terrorist.”

Honig also cited the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines that ruled in favor of three students who were prevented by their school from wearing black armbands to publicize their objection to the Vietnam War.

Harper, president of the Young Democrats, said he was aware of that ruling and had spoken with a legal official from the Young Democratic of Washington.

Harper said he chose not to fight the administration’s decision concerning the peace symbol and slogans because of the “cooperation we have received in starting this club.”

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