Neon-colored rubbery bracelets bearing the message “I [heart] boobies!” in bright lettering proliferate on the wrists of U.S. middle-school students. The bracelets feature prominently in the Keep a Breast Foundation’s campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. But concerns about suggestiveness in the bracelets’ message prompted principals and school districts across the country to set rules against them, triggering opposition from free-speech advocates. One of many such disputes wound up in federal court.
On Aug. 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia upheld a lower court’s decision in favor of two Easton, Pa., middle-school students’ right to wear the bracelets without fear of penalties. The case raised constitutional questions about the balance between the allegedly lewd nature and level of distraction the bracelets presented vs. the students’ right to free speech.
Many find the words on the bracelets offensive because, when spoken by a 14-year-old boy and unlinked to a social cause, their intent would be interpreted as such. The bracelet makers deny sexualizing a disease, but the suggestiveness is in fact the ploy that makes the bracelets popular among a certain crowd. “Boobies” elicits giggles.
Still, banning the bracelets to muffle laughter is not worth the high cost and future repercussions of overstepping students’ already limited rights to free speech — and the freedom to support what is at root a provocative campaign to generate breast cancer awareness, however distasteful it may be to students’ teachers.
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