Thursday, August 31
SANDGATE — According to attorney Stephen Saltonstall, all students, even those in middle school, should be free to express their political opinions.

On Aug. 30, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City issued a ruling saying a Williamstown school district had gone too far in its attempts to censor a politically charged T-shirt worn by seventh-grader Zachary Guiles. The court found the T-shirt was protected as free speech and cleared Guiles' school record of disciplinary actions that resulted.

Saltonstall, an attorney with an office in Bennington and chairman of the Sandgate Select Board, said he believes this is something school boards will have to consider.

"It seemed incredible to me that the school system thought they could censor the T-shirt like that. It offended me. ... I thought the school system went too far," he said.

Saltonstall said he believed the school was responding to the complaints of an athletic coach who was offended by the shirt's implied criticism of President George W. Bush.

"The T-shirt, through an amalgam of images and text, criticizes the President as a chicken-hawk president and accuses him of being a former alcohol and cocaine abuser," the court wrote.

The school tried to censor the T-shirt, because it showed drugs and alcohol and the word "cocaine" was written on it. Saltonstall said he thought that was just an excuse.


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The Vermont Department of Education became involved through the efforts of Carol Rose, a coordinator for the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention and Traffic Safety program. Saltonstall said he thought it was a "little crazy" that the state argued that even images that oppose drug use should be censored.

"What they were saying is that teachers and administrators won't be able to tell what is a pro-drug image and what is an anti-drug image, and I think that's silly. They make those kind of decisions all the time," he said.

While Saltonstall said he is, like most people, opposed to the use of drugs by students and understands the seriousness of the problems faced by educators, he thinks Guiles' T-shirt was not only a political statement but one with an anti-drug message.

Saltonstall said he had taken on the case for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization for which he had served on the board and as a volunteer lawyer.

He said he was disappointed the case had to be won in New York City instead of in Vermont, but he was pleased the decision was made in the influential U.S. Court of Appeals, which is just below the Supreme Court.

Saltonstall has appeared before that court before twice and won both times. This time, he said, he had the help of David Williams, a trial lawyer from St. Johnsbury, and an articulate client in Guiles.

"He deserves a lot of credit for taking the heat in Williamstown. Not every seventh grader would do that," he said.

Guiles, 15, is now a student at a performing arts school in Michigan. He said the lawsuit hasn't really affected his life much. Students at Williamstown weren't very politically aware, he believes, and students at his new school are more liberal and supportive of the message he was sending.

He said he enjoyed working with Saltonstall on the case and never thought about simply giving up. Guiles believes the case will have implications for students throughout Vermont.

"Well, I think generally it's a re-affirmation that Constitutional rights students were guaranteed through Tinker, times haven't changed so much that that's eliminated," he said.

Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District was a 1969 Supreme Court Case that upheld the rights of students to free speech on a school campus.

Saltonstall said Guiles was proof that not all teenagers are apathetic or politically unaware.

"I'm a child of the '60's myself. It's refreshing and gratifying to find a boy in seventh grade willing to take a principled stand," he said.

Guiles said he still wears the T-shirt on occasion and wouldn't hesitate to become involved in political issues in the future, although he added, "It's not like I'm going around looking for lawsuits to get involved with."

Saltonstall said he plans to continue to defend the right of free speech. The Williamstown school district, for instance, could appeal the decision announced on Wednesday.

"If they do, we'll be ready," he said.