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Objections to T-shirts played into group’s plan


The ruckus over a couple of Roosevelt High School students’ anti-abortion T-shirts couldn’t have been scripted any better. It had drama. It had conflict. It got the media’s ear and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union’s attention. It had history.

Did it ever have history. Roosevelt High School officials have had dust-ups with students over their political statements before, in 1965, when Roosevelt students John Tinker and Christopher Echardt, and Mary Beth Tinker, a student at Harding Junior High School, wore black armbands to school to protest U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on the matter, saying that students don’t shed their constitutional rights to free speech and expression at the schoolhouse gates.

That precedent makes it clear that just as the students 40 years before had the right to wear black armbands to protest a war, sisters Brittany and Tamera Chandler had the right to wear their anti-abortion T-shirts to protest abortion. The shirts displayed the words “Abortion Kills Kids” and “She smiles, hears, kicks and feels pain,” along with an image of a healthy fetus, and were sold for $15 each as part of National Pro-Life T-Shirt Day sponsored by the American Life League, whose primary purpose is overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a matter of privacy.

What actually happened at Roosevelt on April 28, the day the sisters wore their T-shirts to school, may not have been the blatant attempt at censorship that was initially reported, but it’s clear that the shirts made some students uncomfortable. The girls were asked to change their shirts, a request that was later retracted by school officials. It was a good save by the Roosevelt administrators, who now say the Chandler sisters and other students welcome to wear their anti-abortion shirts to school anytime they’d like.

In a time of unprecedented voter apathy and a waning interest in politics, it’s refreshing to see young people becoming engaged in such issues. The energy of young people is sorely needed in activist movements of all stripes, regardless of which side they advocate for. But before tying this issue up in red-white-and-blue bunting , consider this:

The Chandler sisters were hardly making a spontaneous political statement. They were more like sheep following the herd. Of course, nothing in the Constitution says free speech has to be spontaneous. Indeed, the students in the Tinker case used the same non-violent protest tactics – the wearing of arm bands and fasting – that pacifists before them had adopted. Their protest, too, was planned.

But the students in the Tinker case weren’t part of a highly organized national campaign to get every pro-life teenager in America to wear a black arm band, as the Chandler sisters were. They weren’t handed a primer from the Thomas More Law Center instructing them in ways to deal with harassment they could expect in school. They weren’t instructed in “working the media,” as the American Life League does on its Web site. And those objecting to the Chandler sisters’ political statement didn’t play into their hands, as if on cue, taking their message against abortion to a larger audience. Instead of just the students and staff at Roosevelt being aware of their position on abortion, any Iowan astute enough to read a newspaper or tune into a television news broadcast knows where they stand.

Isn’t that what the American Life League intended all along?

Beth Dalbey is editorial director for Business Publications Corp. E-mail her at bethdalbey@bpcdm.com.

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