Pa. girls fight 'boobies' bracelet ban in US court

PHILADELPHIA - December 16, 2010

The free-speech case involves Easton Area Middle School, whose seventh-grade principal struggled on the witness stand Thursday when asked if T-shirts with the words "breast cancer" should be permitted on the school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

The middle school, a 90-minute drive north of Philadelphia, suspended two girls in October for refusing to remove the colorful rubber bracelets, which have become wildly popular among teens across the country.

Some school officials are far less enthusiastic. But the Easton Area School District is the first to try to defend a ban in court, according to the Keep A Breast Foundation, the small Carlsbad, Calif., nonprofit that sells the bracelets to engage young people in breast cancer awareness.

In U.S. court Thursday, a school district lawyer asked the suspended girls, Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez, if they wore the bracelets as fashion statements or simply to make waves by defying a school rule.

The girls, whose mothers supported the protest, acknowledged they celebrated with high-fives as they were called down to the principal's office.

Martinez testified they were "proud of standing up for what we believed in."

"Ever since I got that bracelet I've been researching breast cancer," the seventh-grader said. "Anybody that gets this disease ... could die from it. It's very tragic."

The girls were suspended for what the school considered "disruption, defiance and disrespect" - although they were previously told they had violated the school dress code. According to the school district, the bracelets prompted at least two boys to try to touch girls inappropriately.

"Do you think boys would have a natural attraction to girls' breasts?" school district lawyer John E. Freund III asked Hawk in one of the day's more awkward moments.

They do, Hawk agreed. But the confidant eighth-grader did not buy his double-entendre theory.

"I don't see a double meaning," she testified.

The girls, who each said they knew someone who had suffered from breast cancer, take part in sports and other activities. They each served a 1 1/2-day suspension.

The discipline came with a longer ban on school activities, but U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin persuaded Easton officials to let them attend a recent dance while the case plays out.

Schools from Florida to California also have tried to ban the bracelets. The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the Pennsylvania girls on free-speech grounds and described them as good students, successfully intervened without filing suit in a few other districts.

The ACLU admits the "boobies" slogan may be irreverent but says it falls far short of the obscene or profane speech the U.S. Supreme Court permits schools to ban.

Hawk testified that where she grew up, "my family, they call (breasts) boobies. Other people might call them other things."

The students want the judge to lift the bracelet ban and expunge their disciplinary records. The judge was not expected to rule Thursday.

The Keep A Breast Foundation has grown from about three employees to seven in the past few years, marketing manager Kimmy McAtee testified. The group spends about 13 percent of its revenues on overhead, and the top salary is $45,000 a year, she said. The foundation gets $1.50 from each bracelet sold by an outside retailer and $4 from its own online or event sales.

The organization tries to raise young people's awareness about breast cancer through art exhibits, a pilot school program and outreach at music and skateboard festivals.

"I see no sexual message in the 'I love boobies' campaign," McAtee said.

However, she concedes the message isn't for everyone.

"Some people don't want to wear the term 'boobies' just as I wouldn't want to wear a Gap T-shirt," she said. "It's very much a personal preference. Some older people may not feel that it resonates with them."

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