High school teams can wear 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirts after all

Facing possible legal action, a Northern California school district  on Monday rescinded its ban on a group of high school basketball players who had planned to wear "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts during warm-ups in a tournament.

Karen Boyd, an attorney representing one of the players, said the basketball teams from Mendocino High School were notified Monday about Fort Bragg Unified's decision to lift the ban just moments before they had planned to file court papers alleging their 1st Amendment rights were violated.


"We are thankful the district ended up doing the right thing," said Boyd, who represents Connor Woods, one of the players who refused to stop wearing the shirt.

Boys and girls from Mendocino High's basketball teams had planned to wear T-shirts imprinted with the last words of Eric Garner before he was killed by a New York City police officer. The slaying has spurred a series of protests nationwide and calls for an end to police brutality.

Professional athletes, including Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, have worn similar shirts during game warm-ups.

In wearing the shirts, the students planned to send a message of solidarity with the rest of the country, Boyd said. Instead, she said, the athletes' political speech was censored.

The high school athletes' shirts were to be worn before the games, but the idea was quickly quashed by school district officials, who feared the shirts would overshadow the tournament at Fort Bragg High School.

Fort Bragg Unified School District's superintendent, Charles Bush, released a statement saying the intention of the ban had been to keep a "family-oriented school fundraising event" from becoming political.  

"The misperceptions regarding the district's actions have focused on attire rather than our goal of providing a safe and non-disruptive environment," Bush said. "Accordingly, the district has decided to allow players to wear a protest T-shirt if they and their coach deem that appropriate during pre-game warm-up."

The teams were allowed to wear the shirts during warm-ups. Spectators also were allowed to wear the shirts.

"In some ways," Boyd said, the controversy was "gratifying because it brought a lot of attention to the issues."

Mendocino Unified Supt. Jason Morse said the decision by players to wear the shirts "was a complete surprise to our basketball coaches and school administration."

In a statement, Morse said it had been difficult to deal with the issue as it occurred over a school vacation.

"This is a delicate issue in our community," he said. "I have heard concerns from community members on all sides. ... [But] ridiculing our students, claiming they are not aware of current issues, and engaging in hurtful dialogue on the Internet is not helpful.

"Whether someone agrees or disagrees with their message, our students have a voice, they need to be heard, and we will support them in finding an appropriate forum."

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