Boobies and Free Speech
Walk the halls of any secondary or high school in the country. When you hear the word “boobies,” it’s usually uttered in the context you’d expect from hormone-overloaded teens in the twitter era. But for two girls from Easton, Pennsylvania, that’s not the case.
During their school’s Breast Cancer Awareness day, two middle school girls wore bracelets that said “I <3 Boobies (Keep a Breast)!” The middle school’s administration asked the students to remove their bracelets; representatives indicated that the bracelets violated the district’s dress code which bans clothing and other items displaying ”nudity, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity and double entendre pictures or slogans.”
While “I <3 Boobies (Keep a Breast)!” is undoubtedly a “double entendre picture or slogan,” does banning said slogan on a bracelet really help the school achieve the purpose of increased focus, learning, and productivity in a non-threatening environment?
No, it does not. If anything, it’s gotten students, parents, politicos, and media in an uproar about the First Amendment and whether or not the school’s actions have violated the girls’ rights under it.
To be fair, schools are treated differently for purposes of the First Amendment. And free speech does exist; in fact, in a landmark case, Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the Court famously said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door.” But in that opinion, the Court also stressed the ability for administrators to restrict speech far greater than would be acceptable for the general public.
So where does the “Boobies” bracelet fit in this scheme?
Whereas the First Amendment doesn’t quite have the same “teeth” inside school walls as in the outside world, “I <3 Boobies (Keep a Breast)!” should be considered free speech within the meaning of the First Amendment for these Easton girls. The school principal’s fear that the girls’ bracelets create a slippery slope for other students to flaunt bracelets reading “I love balls,” or “I love titties” is pretty far-fetched. There are words in these students’ textbooks more vulgar than “boobies.” The word “boobies” is descriptive but not profane. Think “tush.” Descriptive, but not profane. And as of press time of this blog posting, a federal judge’s preliminary ruling is that the bracelets are not rude or vulgar (and cannot be banned by public school officials who find them offensive).
So, taking the principal’s fear to its logical question, would the “I love balls” bracelet really seem that vulgar in this day and age?
Perhaps “balls” and “titties” are slightly more vulgar than “boobies. But, truth be told, nowadays what used to be “vulgar” is (sadly) simply becoming part of life for the kids. Cee-Lo recorded a song a couple years ago entitled “Fuck You,” and made a “clean version” entitled “Forget You” (but all the middle schoolers no doubt know the real version). ABC just aired a new comedy called “Don’t Trust the B—in Apt 23.” Suggestive? Yes. Vulgar? Maybe. On our airwaves so that each and every child in that middle school can watch it? Definitely. Does this prevalence of what-used-to-be-vulgar-but-is-now-commonplace add to the “over-sexualization of our culture and the potential harm it can cause to young people,” as one of my esteemed peers eloquently states? You bet. Absent a massive societal shift over what’s prudent and what’s acceptable…this is simply the way it is.
If the preliminary ruling is any indication, even in schools, this type of stuff is accepted speech. So to you young ladies in Easton, PA: Keep fightin’ the good fight and flaunt your “Boobies” bracelets!