For Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez, the rubber wristbands with the message "I (heart) Boobies!" that sparked a three-year legal saga were always about raising awareness of breast cancer.
On Monday, the girls said they're happy and proud to have again prevailed in their fight for the right to speak out about a disease that has affected both their families.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Easton Area School District's ban on bracelets with the message "I (heart) Boobies! (Keep a Breast)" as an unconstitutional restriction on students' freedom of speech.
Interpreting nearly a half-century's worth of Supreme Court decisions on the ability of educators to control student speech, an en banc panel of 14 circuit judges ruled that Easton Area, in Northampton County north of Philadelphia, went too far in 2010 by suspending Brianna and Kayla, then 13- and 12-year-old students at Easton Area Middle School, for wearing the bracelets.
The court's 9-5 decision says that while school officials can ban statements that are lewd or obscene, messages that might offend some, but also make a social or political statement, are protected by the First Amendment.
Free speech advocates hailed the decision as a major victory for students.
Easton Area School District solicitor John Freund, however, was critical of the decision, saying it replaces one badly defined standard with another.
He said the court leaves teachers and administrators without any practical guidance in dealing with the more egregious phrases and double entendres that may find their way into the school environment "under the guise of some social or political cause."
U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin ruled in April 2011 that the district's policy was unconstitutional, allowing Brianna and Kayla to wear the bracelets in class. The school district appealed, and the case twice went before the 3rd Circuit, first before a three-judge panel and then before the entire court.