Schools Watch Free-Speech Case On Breast Cancer Bracelets

9:29 AM, Jan 12, 2011   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- School districts nationwide have their eyes on a federal court case in Pennsylvania, which will address whether students should be allowed to wear breast-cancer awareness bracelets that have become a controversy in multiple states.

The bracelets - which proclaim "I (heart symbol) boobies!" - have been banned in some districts. U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin will hear oral arguments on Feb. 18.

"Anytime a case based on a First Amendment free-speech case crops up, then other school districts are going to look at it," said Robert Richards, founder of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University. "Based on how those decisions come out, schools will change their policies or adopt policies."

The case arose after two middle-school girls were prohibited from wearing the bracelets in the Easton (Pa.) Area School District in October. The girls -identified in court documents "B.H., a minor and K.M., a minor" - and their mothers, Jennifer Hawk and Amy McDonald-Martinez, are seeking to lift the ban.

The Easton district doesn't wish to suppress messages about breast cancer, said John Freund, the lawyer representing the district. "What the school has a difficulty with," he said, "is the manner of that expression, particularly the double entendre of 'I love boobies.' "

Freund said the bracelets cause disruptions. "The reason this came to the administration's attention is that teachers said kids were more focused on the booby bracelets than they were on their lessons."

Mary Catherine Roper, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is helping represent the girls and their parents, said that students have a right to wear the bracelets.

The Easton case is the only one the ACLU has initiated, but Roper said she has corresponded with colleagues in Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Delaware. "I am in touch with ACLU lawyers all over the country who have been in conversations with various school districts about this."

Two Utah school districts - Granite and Weber - decided last month not to ban the bracelets after the ACLU contacted them, said Darcy Goddard, legal director for the ACLU of Utah Foundation. A district in Junction City, Kan., dropped its ban after a letter from the ACLU, said Doug Bonney, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

The bracelets have also caused controversy in South Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin.

Proceeds from the sales of the bracelets go to the California-based Keep A Breast Foundation, which sells them for $3.99 on its website.

"Keep A Breast believes the best way to reach, educate and impact people is by speaking to them in a voice they can relate to," spokeswoman Kimmy McAtee said.

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