When Does Dress Code Become Censorship in Public School?

The recent banning at an Arizona high school of pink t-shirts bearing a slogan that the principal found offensive has begged the questions: Are slogans offensive if they're displayed for a good cause? Should school officials be more lenient in allowing students freedom of speech when it comes to fundraising or other positive activities? Education Insider takes a look at what could be a fine line between perceived inappropriateness and censorship.

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Dump the 'Bumps'

Cheerleaders at Gilbert High School in Arizona have their hearts in the right place: don pink t-shirts for home football games in October to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Who could say no?

Principal J. Charles Santa Cruz could, and did. Santa Cruz, who gave the cheerleaders the green light to host a fundraising event for breast cancer awareness, found the slogan the girls had chosen to print on the backs of the t-shirts offensive: 'Feel for Lumps, Save Your Bumps.'

'We just want to make sure we're in the bounds of appropriate boundaries of a school setting,' Santa Cruz told USA Today. He added that the school was not against Breast Cancer Awareness Month or students' efforts to support it. His answer was to cover up the slogan or to have the girls wear plain pink t-shirts in place of those bearing the slogan.

Censorship or Job Duties?

Some of the cheerleaders were quick to point out that other potentially offensive slogans appear on t-shirts or bracelets worn by other school club members or students in general: 'I'd hit that' (referencing a musical note) on choir t-shirts; 'I'm good with my hands' on sign-language club t-shirts; rubber 'I (heart) boobies' bracelets sold by the nonprofit Keep a Breast Foundation.

'What's the difference?' asked varsity cheerleader Natalie Skowronek, whose mother Gayleen is the president of the cheer booster-club.

It's hard to say. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be any difference at all. Does it come down to a single person's view as to what is appropriate and what is not? Most likely. But one could argue that it is a school administrator's job to decide what is and isn't a good representation of a particular school. Is Santa Cruz censoring the cheerleaders' message or simply doing his job?

Beverly Kruse, executive director of the Phoenix affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, commended the students for their awareness efforts but agreed that Santa Cruz as principal was in a position to more or less call the shots and that he was likely acting in his students' best interests. And that would be a strong argument. . .except for the 'I'd hit that' shirts, the 'I'm good with my hands' shirts', the 'I (heart) boobies' bracelets. It's hard to believe that the principal hasn't singled the cheerleaders out while those other messages are being freely displayed on campus.

A Victory Nonetheless

In 2010 and again this year, schools across the nation have banned the 'I (heart) boobies' bracelets from campuses. While there have been some victories (a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in April 2011 that the bracelets were not 'lewd or vulgar' and could be worn by schoolchildren), many schools continue the ban. The principal of Baltic High School in South Dakota told USA Today last year, 'I do think there are more proper ways to bring this plight to the attention of people, and I don't think this is a proper way.'

Apparently Principal Santa Cruz feels the same about the cheerleading squad's t-shirts. For now, his ban is still in place. The girls are upset, and remain adamant to get their message across. Some are contemplating wearing them anyway, even in the face of disciplinary action. They might feel that the ban is nothing more than censorship, and if they do they're probably right.

But the argument can be made that the entire situation has drawn more attention than wearing the t-shirts in the first place. Shaney Jo Darden, founder of California-based Keep A Breast Foundation, said of the bracelets last year: 'The bracelet is doing what it's meant to do - it's making people talk.' Apparently, so are the 'Save Your Bumps' t-shirts.

So, Principal Santa Cruz gets his way: t-shirts banned. And the girls get their way: awareness raised. And censorship takes one on the chin.

Censorship loses again: find out what the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library did when one of its namesake's books was banned from a Missouri high school.

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