U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Free Speech Rights of Williamstown Student
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 upheld the political free speech rights of a Williamstown Middle School student, putting to rest a case brought by the ACLU-Vermont in 2004
The court announced June 29, 2007, that it would not review the case of Guiles v. Marineau. The Williamstown School District had appealed after losing before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court did not immediately deny the request for an appeal, waiting instead until it had ruled in another student free speech case, Morse v. Frederick, the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case. That decision came June 25, 2007, and four days later the court announced its decision not to review the Williamstown case – thereby allowing the Second Circuit decision to stand.
Although the court’s decision in Morse v. Frederick was viewed as a victory for a school’s right of censorship, the decision was very narrow. It applies only to student comments advocating use of illegal drugs. The justices were careful to note that censorship may not extend to political comments made by students. That distinguished the case from Guiles.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s action is a complete and total victory for Zach Guiles’ free speech rights,” said Stephen L. Saltonstall of Bennington, who along with David J. Williams of St. Johnsbury was the ACLU cooperating attorney who represented Guiles.
The case revolved around a T-shirt critical of President Bush worn to school in 2004 by Zachary Guiles, who was 13 at the time. The T-shirt called Bush “Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief” who was engaged in a “World Domination Tour.”
Guiles was told that he couldn't wear the T-shirt unless he taped over certain pictures on the T-shirt -- pictures of a martini glass, a marijuana cigarette, and cocaine. The pictures were allusions to Bush's alleged former substance abuse problems -- which were also described in words on the T-shirt.
The school claimed the display of the pictures violated the school’s dress policy, which prohibits all images of drugs, or drug paraphernalia, on student clothing.
After a trial in August 2004 in Burlington, U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III ruled that Guiles' free speech rights covered the written words on the T-shirt, even those words describing Bush's alleged drug problems. However, said Sessions, those rights did not cover the pictures on the T-shirt. The school's policy against drug images of any type allowed it to censor that part of Guiles' shirt.
The ACLU appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, which in August 2006 agreed with the ACLU. The three-judge appeals panel relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker decision. The Second Circuit decision said that “The pictures are an important part of the political message Guiles wished to convey, accentuating the anti-drug (and anti-Bush) message.”
The school district then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, which in June 2007 it declined to do after the Morse v. Frederick case was decided.
Read the Second Circuit Court’s decision.
Read the U.S. Supreme Court decision Morse v. Frederick.
Explore the teaching unit, Guiles v. Marineau.
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