Opinion: Columnists

You can't wear whatever you want to school

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Ah, kids these days! Real whippersnappers, some of them. Take, for instance, 15-year-old Brianna Demato, of New York City's Queens borough.

Brianna tells the media she is a proudly out bisexual. She wore an "I enjoy vagina" T-shirt to school. One of the school's deans saw Brianna wearing the shirt during lunch hour and told her to either change it or go home.

It was at this point that Brianna figured, somewhere down the line, folks at the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union would rush to her aid. (They haven't yet, but you can be sure they will.) Brianna chose to go home, and then did what way too many Americans do these days.

She went straight into victim mode.

Brianna claimed that officials at Queens' Newtown High School violated her free speech rights. Here's her logic, according to news reports: "It's hypocritical. They use the word in class. Why can't I, on a shirt?"

Brianna came to this gem of a conclusion by using what she no doubt thinks are her reasoning powers. But her logic doesn't hold up. Some 15-year-olds -- perhaps many -- know the importance of context when using words. Young Ms. Demato isn't one of them.

The way the word "vagina" is used in class at Newtown High School and the way Brianna used it on the shirt have completely different contexts. And that, young Ms. Demato, is precisely why the free speech you cherish -- and that you claim was violated -- isn't even close to being absolute.

One person who will have a hard time believing that is one Cathy Demato, Brianna's mom. She stands behind her daughter's folly.

"They're discriminating against Brianna," Cathy Demato fumed, according to news reports. "They pulled her out of class for nothing. She's not hurting anyone."

It's clear that Brianna learned her lessons in logic from her mom. For starters, if news reports that Brianna was told to go home during the lunch hour are true, then it's not factual that school officials "pulled Brianna out of class."

School officials necessarily discriminate when they enforce dress codes. They, not the Brianna Dematos, are the ones that have to set the standards and draw the lines, telling students which attire is appropriate for a school setting and which attire isn't. Part of the consideration is whether that attire will distract other students and interfere with learning. So it's not a question of whether Brianna's T-shirt was "hurting anyone." The issue is whether it was proper attire for a school setting.

Cathy Demato said her daughter would return to school "wearing a shirt that says, 'I'm the b---h from down the block.' The message is, she can wear whatever she wants." Oh really, Cathy Demato? Does that mean your daughter can go to school rocking a T-shirt that has a swastika on it? You'd be cool with that? How about a T-shirt that reads "I hate n----rs?"

Cathy Demato might respond that her precious daughter would NEVER wear such shirts. But other students might want to wear them. And if, as Cathy Demato asserts, her precious daughter "can wear whatever she wants," then that right has to apply to each and every other student.

If Brianna Demato's mom wants to set the dress code for Newtown High School in Queens, then she should apply for a job as one of the school's administrators. If she doesn't want to do that, then she might want to at least let those administrators do their jobs.

In the meantime, she might want to brush up on the laws and court rulings about free speech and the First Amendment, the better to learn why her daughter can't "wear whatever she wants."

Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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Gregory Kane

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The Washington Examiner