Anti-abortion T-shirt pits free speech vs. school dress code Woodlawn High student sues in federal court.

July 09, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

A Woodlawn High School student is pitting the First Amendment against the school's dress code in an effort to obtain a federal court's permission to wear a graphic anti-abortion T-shirt to school.

Jeffrey M. Baus, 17, testified yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that he should have a constitutional right to wear the T-shirt, which displays a drawing of a dismembered and bloody fetus.

"It's part of my right to free speech," he said, "and I would like for people at my school to realize what abortion really is. It's murder, and it must be stopped."

But Louis J. Sergi, who as Woodlawn High's principal had banned the shirt last year, testified that the First Amendment right to free speech had not been an issue in his decision. He said the graphic image violated the school's dress code and might have caused disruptions.

The non-jury trial, before Judge Marvin J. Garbis, results from a lawsuit filed in August by Jeffrey Baus and his brother, Gregory Alan Baus, 19, who was forced to leave the school when he refused to remove the same T-shirt in May 1991.

Gregory Baus graduated from Woodlawn two weeks after the incident but remains a plaintiff in the suit, which seeks permission for his brother to wear the T-shirt in the coming school year.

Named as defendants are Mr. Sergi, an assistant principal and the Baltimore County school board.

The brothers contend the school violated their free speech rights and unlawfully detained Gregory Baus in May 1991, when officials ordered him to take off the shirt. He refused and was driven home by Mr. Sergi.

Lawyers at the Rutherford Institute, which specializes in First Amendment issues relating to religious expression, filed the suit, which seeks $30,000 on behalf of the brothers and their parents.

At issue is a hand-drawn picture on the T-shirt that shows a fetus in seven pieces, blood dripping from each one. The image is accompanied by the words: "Kinda' looks like murder, doesn't it? It is murder, and it is legal. It's abortion."

Jeffrey Baus testified that the picture portrays a 10-week-old fetus. Healso said he drew considerable attention two months ago when he again wore it to Woodlawn High, but no action was taken against him.

Mr. Sergi, who now is the principal at Towson High, said he had not intended to restrict free speech when he banned the shirt. He said that in 1990 the school imposed a dress code barring depictions of violence after children complained about a student wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Malcolm X, a gun and the phrase, "By any means necessary." "My concern was strictly the graphics, the violence that I felt was on that shirt," Mr. Sergi said of the anti-abortion image. "I think most of the problems our young people have today is that they see too much violence."

He said Gregory Baus was free to express his opinions by handing out literature or through discussions with other students. But Mr. Sergi said he was afraid that displaying such a graphic image on a shirt would pose a danger to the youth's safety if other students reacted unfavorably. He said he had sought to head off any such problems.

"A girl was pregnant at the time, and she was upset by the shirt," Mr. Sergi said while being questioned by Leslie R. Stellman, the Baltimore County school board attorney. "I didn't know if there were young men who were also upset and might become angry with Greg."

Under cross-examination by the plaintiffs' attorney, David R. Noonan, Mr. Sergi said he also would ban an abortion rights T-shirt with a picture of a bloody hanger because it portrayed violence.

Dr. Neil J. Feehley, the school system's coordinator of psychological services, testified that wearing the Baus brothers' shirt could arouse a class to the point where it would disrupt the lesson.

"If it is a math class, I doubt if students would be paying much attention to the math," said Dr. Feehley, adding that the school system was trying to promote "an environment conducive to learning."

Testimony and arguments are to end tomorrow, but a decision is not expected for several weeks.

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