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Vegan student may seek new judge

September 14, 1999 by
Filed under: Censorship 

John Ouimette, a student in Utah who was suspended for wearing a Vegan sweatshirt, may be maneuvering to get a new judge for a lawsuit against his school. Last February, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson refused a request for an injunction, which would have allowed Ouimette to wear his Vegan attire while his case proceeded. By denying the injunction the judge implied that he would ultimately rule against Ouimette.

“Our main thrust of the lawsuit was to get a temporary restraining order when the incident was happening to get the kid back in school wearing the shirt,” said Ouimette’s lawyer, Brian Barnard of the Utah Legal Clinic.

Ouimette did not fall into his lawsuit accidentally. He walked proudly into the fist of intolerance by disobeying a school board ban on attire with the word “vegan.” The school board claims that the ban will quell promotion of the Straight Edge movement, whose members are vegan. However, Ouimette, and most other vegans, are not members of the movement.

Two assistant principals immediately suspended Ouimette when he refused to take off his Vegan sweatshirt. Then upon returning to school, Ouimette wore a T-shirt that said, “Vegans have First-Amendment rights.” After school officials suspended him again, Ouimette filed his lawsuit.

In the suit, he claims that the assistant principals violated his right to free expression by banning his vegan attire. They also prohibited him from circulating a petition that promoted the vegan lifestyle and protested the school board’s ban on vegan symbols. His suit asks the court to overturn the school’s suspension and seeks $1 in damages.

Since Ouimette is 16 years old and is a so-called “minor,” he needed a person to file the case on his behalf. He chose Sean Diener, who is not a family member, as his “next friend,” which in legal terms is the person appointed by the court to look after the interests of someone who can’t act on his or her own. Assistant attorneys general Elizabeth King and Dan Larsen, who represent Copper Hills High School, asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit because they claim that Sean Diener is an inappropriate next friend, as he is not related to Ouimette.

Barnard, Ouimette’s lawyer, agreed to drop the case but then King and Larsen filed an objection to Barnard’s consent because it did not state whether or not Ouimette could refile the case. King has asked Judge Benson to appoint a new next friend for Ouimette in order to allow the case to proceed.

“A dismissal without prejudice doesn’t have much teeth,” King said Wednesday. “I think [Barnard] is just trying to get a different judge, and we’re trying to ensure the minor plaintiff is properly represented,” he said.

Barnard said he is giving the state what it wanted. “We’re not maneuvering. She’s the one who made the motion. It’s that old story to be careful what you ask for,” Barnard said.

Barnard and Ouimette are probably eager to refile the case in the hopes of getting a judge who is not “constitutionally-challenged.” Judge Benson is clearly not exercising judicial restraint when he stops a student from exercising First-Amendment rights. It is not surprising when principals and politicians try to suppress speech, but it is an atrocity when a member of the judicial branch of government fails to use the Constitution to check the power of the executive branch.

Schools may only suppress speech, appearance, or attire, if it is disruptive. Unfortunately, “disruptive” is an ambiguous term.

If you sue your school, your success will be dependent upon the judge. Judges such as Benson “legislate from the bench.” Though they swear to uphold the Constitution, they use their judicial power to destroy it. For example, judges routinely allow politicians to ban gun possession even though the Constitution states, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” A judge who exercises judicial restraint would strike down all gun laws and tell politicians who dislike handguns to amend the Constitution.

In a related incident with a constitutionally correct outcome, a student who wrote a bombnote escaped criminal charges when a judge ruled that the note was found during an unconstitutional search. This judge disagreed with the actions of the student on a personal level, but he knew that his job was to defend the Constitutional rights of all Americans, regardless of their age or lifestyle.

In the Ouimette decision, Judge Benson said, “”Schools need to run and administrators need to make rules…That’s the only reason they exist.” He added that veganism and the sometimes violent Straight Edge movement seemed inseparable and that gang attire had become particularly troubling since two students who were part of a “Trench Coat Mafia” shot 13 people and themselves at a Littleton, Colo., high school.

Does this mean that schools should also ban soymilk? How about non-leather sneakers? The judge and the school officials are obviously trying to suppress the promotion of the vegan lifestyle. Like the Mississippi school that tried to prevent a student from wearing a Jewish Star, the Jordan School District simply used the gang-attire hysteria as an excuse to suppress speech. If Straight Edgers celebrated meat eating, it is unlikely that they would ban the word “carnivore.” For the record, Mississippi also didn’t ban the Christian cross even though the KKK, a notorious gang, uses it.

At a rally in support of his case, Ouimette said that veganism is about compassion and justice for all living beings. Perhaps school officials find that concept to be the real threat to their small totalitarian towns.

According to case law, schools may only suppress speech, appearance, or attire, if it is disruptive. Unfortunately, “disruptive” is an ambiguous term. At one point, school’s believed that short hair on women was disruptive and many still ban men from having long hair. It seems that anything that veers from traditional thinking is disruptive.

If your attire is considered “disruptive,” you have the right to sue your school for violating your Constitutional rights. You do not need to get suspended to have a case. By simply forcing you to remove a so-called gang symbol or cutting your hair, a school official could be guilty of violating your rights. You can simply say, “Are you saying that if I don’t remove the pink dye from my hair, then you’ll suspend me?” If your school official replies, “Yes,” then you may have a case.

If you need a lawyer, you can contact the ACLU or lawyers that provide pro-bono (free or reduced cost) legal assistance. Ouimette sought help from Brian Barnard of the Utah Legal Clinic. You can simply call up a law firm and ask if they provide pro-bono legal assistance. Visit Findlaw.com for more information.

In his testimony before the court, Ouimette testified he was unaffiliated with the Straight Edgers and wore the vegan shirt only to protest the district’s ban. Even if he was the international leader of the entire Straight Edge movement he should still be allowed to wear clothing with the word “Vegan.” In addition, Straight Edgers should be allowed to promote their lifestyle and beliefs. Why? Because this is a free country with a Bill of Rights that protects ALL citizens from government censorship.

Ouimette is now back in school without his vegan shirt. Hopefully, he will escape from Judge Benson’s Kangaroo court and then refile the case. Constitutional rights should not be dependent upon one’s diet.

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