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Law School Case Brief

Guiles v. Marineau - 461 F.3d 320 (2d Cir. 2006)


United States Supreme Court standards for speech in schools is distilled as follows: (1) Schools have wide discretion to prohibit speech that is less than obscene--to wit, vulgar, lewd, indecent or plainly offensive speech; (2) if the speech at issue is "school-sponsored," educators may censor student speech so long as the censorship is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns;" and (3) for all other speech, meaning speech that is neither vulgar, lewd, indecent or plainly offensive under Fraser, nor school-sponsored under Hazelwood, the rule of Tinker applies. Schools may not regulate such student speech unless it would materially and substantially disrupt class work and discipline in the school.


Plaintiff Zachary Guiles, a 13-year-old student at Williamstown Middle High School, began wearing at school, a T-shirt depicting President George W. Bush in an uncharitable light. Guiles wore the T-shirt on average once a week for two months. Although the shirt evoked discussion from students, it did not cause any disruptions or fights inside or outside the school. But the T-shirt raised the ire of one fellow student whose politics evidently were opposed to Guiles'. This student complained to teachers who told her that the shirt was political speech and therefore protected. On May 12, 2004, Guiles was to go on a school field trip. He wore the T-shirt that day. The parent of the student, who had previously complained to teachers regarding the shirt, chaperoned the field trip, noticed the shirt, and voiced her objection to defendant Marineau, the school's student support specialist. Marineau, after consulting with Shoik, the union superintendent, determined that the T-shirt, specifically the images of drugs and alcohol violated one of the provisions of the school’s dress code. Marineau gave Guiles three choices: (i) turn the shirt inside-out; (ii) tape over the images of the drugs and alcohol and the word "cocaine"; or (iii) change shirts. Guiles' father came in to speak with Marineau, who reiterated that the shirt contravened dress code policy. Guiles and his father went to speak with Shoik who reaffirmed what Marineau had said. Guiles returned home with his father for the remainder of that day. On May 13, 2004, Guiles returned to school wearing the T-shirt. Marineau again instructed him to tape over the offending images with duct tape, turn the shirt inside out, or change shirts. Guiles declined, and Marineau filled out a discipline referral form and sent plaintiff home. The discipline referral form remains in Guiles' record. On May 14, 2004, Guiles again wore the T-shirt to school, this time, however, with the images of drugs and alcohol and the word "cocaine" covered with duct tape. On the duct tape, Guiles had scrawled the word "Censored." Guiles then brought suit in federal district court seeking to enjoin defendants (Marineau, Shoik, at al.) from enforcing the dress code policy with regard to his T-shirt, alleging that the actions of the school officials abridged his First Amendment right to engage in political speech.  After a three-day bench trial, the United States District Court for the District of Vermont held that the school's censorship was a permissible abridgement of Guiles' First Amendment rights. 


Was the school’s censorship of the student’s T-shirt a permissible abridgment of the latter’s First Amendment rights?




Applying the doctrine enunciated in Tinker 393 U.S. at 513, the appellate court held that the defendants’ censorship of the images on Guiles’ T-shirt violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court noted that the parties were in agreement that Guiles’ T-shirt did not cause any disruption or confrontation in the school; nor did defendants contend that they had a reasonable belief that it would. According to the appellate court, because Guiles’ T-shirt did not cause any disruption, defendants' censorship was unwarranted.

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