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I ? My Vagina, High School Students In Trouble For Wearing Button


Originally published in:
Star Tribune
04/21/2005

James Walsh
http://www.startribune.com/stories/462/5359758.html2

Winona High students put free speech to the test
Two Winona High School students have found themselves in hot water with school officials.

Why? Because after Carrie Rethlefsen attended a performance of the play "The Vagina Monologues" last month, she and Emily Nixon wore buttons to school that read: "I [heart] My Vagina."

School leaders said that the pin is inappropriate and that the discomfort it causes trumps the girls' right to free speech. The girls disagree. And despite repeated threats of suspension and expulsion, Rethlefsen has continued to wear her button.

The girls have won support from other students and community members.

More than 100 students have ordered T-shirts bearing "I [heart] My Vagina" for girls and "I Support Your Vagina" for boys.

"We can't really find out what is inappropriate about it," Rethlefsen, 18, said of the button she wears to raise awareness about women's issues. "I don't think banning things like that is appropriate."

Their case could become another test of whether high school students have the right to express their views in school. Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, has offered to help the girls.

"It's political speech," he said.

Samuelson acknowledged that school officials can limit speech considered detrimental or dangerous. But he said this case is similar to Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case where students were forbidden to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The court ruled that First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students and that administrators' fear about how others might react is not enough to squelch those rights.

"Free speech is a messy thing," Samuelson said. "People need to understand that opinions that they are not comfortable with, or even opinions they disagree with, need to be allowed."

Good students

To say the girls have never been in trouble at school before is an understatement. They are top students. Rethlefsen was in Minneapolis on Tuesday, presenting her science project on organic farming at General Mills. She has been invited to a prestigious international science and engineering fair for the fourth year in a row.

Nixon, 17, joked that when she was called into the assistant principal's office about the button issue, he told her: "I don't think we've ever met."

But they're in trouble now. And it could get worse.

Rethlefsen said school officials first told her the button was inappropriate in mid-March when a school secretary spotted it. That started a string of visits -- and debates -- with teachers, counselors, an assistant principal and the principal. A teacher barred Rethlefsen from her classroom as long as she wore her button.

"The principal said that by wearing the pin, I was giving people wrong ideas," Rethlefsen said. "That I was giving an open invitation [to guys]."

The girls said they tried to explain that the buttons are meant to spark discussion about violence against women, about women's rights. But Principal Nancy Wondrasch said others find the buttons offensive.

"We support free speech," she said. "But when it does infringe on other people's rights and our school policies, then we need to take a look at that."

Wondrasch said she thought they had worked out a compromise with the girls, allowing them to set up a table in the school to discuss women's issues. But Rethlefsen said school officials are insisting that they review and approve any information the girls want to present.

So they're turning to the T-shirts, paid for with money collected from friends and supporters. "And we're going to wear them sometime next week," Rethlefsen said.

Nixon said more than 100 students are expected to wear the shirts. She added that officials have threatened real consequences if that happens.

"They told us that if a single person showed up wearing them, we're going to get expelled," she said. "People are going to wear them anyway."

Wondrasch wouldn't comment on what sort of discipline the students might face. But the prospect of expulsion worries Rethlefsen's mother, Ann.

"She's a very independent young lady," Ann Rethlefsen said, adding that she understands the school's point. "We just want to make sure she graduates."

Her daughter has gained "a lot of support around town," she said. She's even received encouraging e-mails from noted feminist author Susan Faludi.

Nixon is nervous about what could happen next. But the girls say they are taking a stand.

"We're not trying to offend anyone," Nixon said. "But I want people to think for themselves and come up with their own conclusions."

James Walsh is at jwalsh@startribune.com.