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The Virginity Battle and the T-shirt Wars

By Harvey Silverglate


          The constant war between kids who want to say what they believe and high school administrators who want, above all else, to keep the peace on their watch rages on. The latest battle is at Albemarle County and Charlottesville Public Schools in (appropriately enough) Virginia, where certain teachers reportedly asked culturally conservative teenage girls to turn inside-out t-shirts with the slogan “Virginity Rocks," so as to hide the message.

The non-profit Rutherford Institute, which seeks to promote, through legal activism, Christian conservative and religious causes and issues, jumped into the fray and wrote the school system a letter threatening litigation. It appears that litigation will not be necessary, since the school officials replied that Rutherford was under a misapprehension, and that the officials were not prohibiting the wearing of the t-shirts after all.

            And it’s a good thing, too, since the First Amendment to the Constitution would very likely protect the wearing of such t-shirts, as well as t-shirts with a counter message (although one can imagine illustrations to the counter-message that might not make it through the Supreme Court’s Fraser opinion that draws a line at vulgarity. And, under an even more recent (and very unfortunate, for liberty) Supreme Court decision, there’s an exception for pro-drug-use messages.

            Admittedly, the lines drawn in the constant wars between high school (and sometimes younger) students who want to express themselves, and administrators who are comfortable only with their own views on things, are not the model of constitutional and legal clarity. And notions of academic freedom, in theory more absolute at the college level than in lower grades, have limited applicability in high school and even less in elementary school. But the question one asks time and again in these cases is why school administrators get involved in the first place. These kids seem capable of having sometimes uncomfortable yet civil (or at least non-violent) dialogues. It’s too bad the same can’t be said about all of their teachers and administrators.

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