By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian
At 14, Zachary Guiles is a focused and thoughtful citizen. He plays first trombone in the Vermont Youth Symphony Orchestra, likes to ride his dirt bike and to read — especially Michael Moore’s books. And he has a good relationship with both of his parents.
He’s not the kind of kid you’d expect to hear of getting banned from school and winding up in court. But last year, that’s what happened — all because of a T-shirt Zach wore to school — a shirt he had worn numerous times without raising an eyebrow.
The message on the shirt calls Pres. George W. Bush “Chicken-Hawk-In-Chief,” referring to the gaps in Bush’s military career as a reservist. It appears that school officials didn’t object to the political message. Rather, they took issue with the caricature of the image of the president drinking and snorting cocaine.
School officials say Zach’s shirt violated the Williamstown Middle High School dress code, which reads: “Any aspect of a person’s appearance, which otherwise constitutes a real hazard to the health and safety of self and others or is otherwise distracting, is unacceptable as an expression of personal taste.” As an example, it lists clothing that displays alcohol or drugs as being prohibited.
In a Dec. 20 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions said the school was wrong to censor the word “cocaine” on Zach’s shirt, but was within its rights to have him cover the images. Sessions also ruled that the school must expunge a one-day suspension on Zach’s record.
“This case requires the court to balance the important values of a public school student’s right to free speech and the authority of school officials to control the learning environment,” Sessions wrote.
“Although an alternate approach … is possible, these decisions are best left to experienced educators in the field rather than federal judges. As long as a school is not censoring political content, school officials may prohibit dress bearing images of drugs and alcohol as inappropriate for the school environment. Thus, Zach is not entitled to an injunction allowing him to wear his T-shirt without tape covering the displays of drugs and alcohol,” Sessions concluded.
The Williamstown teenager and his family have appealed the ruling to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Steve Saltonstall, a Bennington lawyer, took the case after being contacted by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re happy with the part of the decision that the school violated his First Amendment rights by censoring the word cocaine off his T-shirt,” said Saltonstall. “However, with all due respect to Judge Sessions, I don’t see any legal basis for the split decision. Symbols are integral to the case law.”
Saltonstall cites the so-called Tinker case, in which several Des Moines, IA, students were banned from wearing black armbands in school during the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War. A court overturned the school’s decision.
“The district’s position is clear. The district believes that drugs and alcohol is a serious problem with kids,” said Tony Lamb, the school district’s attorney. “They need to reduce the impact of those symbols and send a message about what is appropriate in a school environment, and that is what the school policy aims to do.”
According to one expert on First Amendment issues, schools have to walk a fine line between censorship and recognizing free speech. He expects other cases like the one involving Guiles to be reviewed in years to come.
“There are other T-shirt cases out there because they fall right in the fault line of what schools can do and can’t do in terms of restricting First Amendment rights,” said Peter Teachout, a Vermont Law School professor who is an expert in First Amendment law. “And, what students are recognizing [is] that their First Amendment rights are not [as] extensive in the schools as they are in the street.”
Still, Teachout warns that a sweeping prohibition on drugs and alcohol could be seen as overly broad, and is likely the issue that will be the focus of the appeals court discussion. A more narrowly drawn prohibition would probably be upheld by the courts more readily, he said.
Zach and his attorney argue that the shirt didn’t promote the use of drugs and alcohol.
“This shirt is obviously not promoting drugs; it’s about George W. Bush being an idiot, and he did drugs and that makes him even more of an idiot,” Zach said.
“Implicit in the school’s position is the idea that these kids are so dumb they couldn’t understand the message of Zach’s T-shirt — that it’s not promoting drugs and alcohol, but in fact, just the opposite,” Saltonstall said. “I think that is just an incorrect assessment of the intelligence of middle and high school students.”
Lamb said no image of drugs or alcohol is OK in a school setting. “For example, if a kid wears a Dale Earnhardt, Jr., hat to school, we’re going to ask him to take it off because he is sponsored by Budweiser and somewhere on every piece of clothing is a Budweiser logo — and that’s not allowed,” Lamb said.
Zach said what bothers him most is that he wore the shirt for two months with no hassles from school officials.
“It wasn’t until the mom of a kid who was chaperoning a field trip, and who didn’t like the shirt, told the vice principal. He initially thought the shirt would be OK, and then the mother went back in, and the vice principal then came back out and told me that I couldn’t wear the shirt,” Zach said.
He was told he could turn the shirt inside out, tape over the images and the word “cocaine,” or change shirts. He refused all of those options and was banned from the field trip. He wore the shirt again the next day and received a one-day suspension. His father, Tim Guiles, picked up Zach and took him home.
The following day, Zach wore the shirt again, covering the controversial images and words with duct tape on which he wrote “censored.” The shirt was deemed OK to wear.
Attempts to challenge Zach’s suspension amicably with the school failed, and after wearing the shirt a few more times with the tape on it, he finally took the shirt off when it just seemed silly to wear it.
Saltonstall took the case, in part, he said, because he believed it was winnable and because he believes in sticking up for the First Amendment. But Zach’s case also brought up memories from his own past.
“I was also kicked out of high school for the same thing. It was in 1962, and I held up a sign during a Memorial Day parade. The sign read, ‘End the arms race, ban the bomb,’ and had a peace symbol on it,” Saltonstall said. “It’s easy for me to put myself in Zach’s position. It’s hard at [Zach’s age] to stand up to authority figures, especially school authorities, and in this case I think he’s right. And, I feel honored to be his lawyer.”
Saltsonstall said he is reasonably optimistic that they will win the case on appeal. However, oral arguments will not likely happen until six months from now, with a final decision coming down six months later.
Lamb said he believes the ruling will hold up on appeal. To date, the Guiles’ attorney is asking the district to pay $30,000 to cover the teen’s legal fees. The case has cost the school district $20,000 so far, Lamb said.
The attorney said he was pleased with Sessions’ ruling, though he said that expunging the disciplinary record was an odd addition. “There is some discrepancy about whether he was asked to cover up the word ‘cocaine’ or just the images,” Lamb said. “He was only disciplined for not covering up the images.”
The district has no immediate plans to make sweeping changes to its dress code rules, but they may try to make the rules clearer, Lamb added.
Meanwhile, Zach is getting on with his own life. Last year was the first time he had been in public school for several years. He is back to being home-schooled this year, although he attends music classes and plays in the school band at Williamstown Middle High School. An avid student of music, Zach is preparing to tour Vermont schools this spring as a solo trombonist with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
Tim Guiles said he is not surprised that his son is at the center of a First Amendment firestorm.
“I’ve been involved as an environmental activist for years, and I’ve brought Zach to anti-nuclear protests,” Guiles said. “He has grown up with activism around him … It’s really a natural progression to find this cropping up in his life.”
In the meantime, Zach finds himself occasionally at the center of attention, sometimes in person and sometimes on the Internet.
“It’s kind of interesting, a stranger on the street will talk to me about it,” said Zach. “It’s been educational, this whole experience — to see how the court process works, the whole filing of the case, and the cross-examination of different people to get the answers they want. It was interesting.”
While he waits to hear when Saltonstall can argue his appeal before a three-judge appellate panel, Zach said is anxious to get his shirt back. “In August, they took the shirt as evidence, and I still don’t have the shirt back yet, and I’m not sure if I’m going to get the shirt back at this point,” he said.
But if one of Zach’s supporters has his way, the Williamstown teen will get more than his old T-shirt to wear.
The original “Chicken-Hawk-In-Chief” shirt was developed by millionaire Jimmy Walter of Santa Barbara, CA, who, since hearing of the Dec. 20 court ruling, has promised to send dozens of T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts to Zach and other Vermonters to protest the ruling.
“A moment of silence for the First Amendment is in order … I think this ruling was ridiculous,” Walter told the Vermont Guardian. “I mean, what are they hiding from? Satire and ridicule are protected under the First Amendment.”
Walter said Zach’s actions should be held up as an example of what true patriots do when civil liberties are being trounced: Stand up and be heard.
“I want to send him extra shirts so he and all his friends can all wear them together, because they shouldn’t be told they can’t express themselves,” Walter said.
Posted January 28, 2005