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ACLU backs wearers of "Free Banana Man' T-shirts

Thursday - 9/22/2011, 7:08pm  ET

STAFFORD, Va. - The American Civil Liberties Union told a Stafford County high school's administrators Thursday that they must allow students to wear "Free Banana Man" T-shirts protesting the suspension of a classmate who sprinted around a football field wearing a banana costume.

Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, sent the letter to Colonial Forge High School Principal Karen Spillman after students reported being told to remove the yellow shirts protesting 14-year-old Bryan Thompson's suspension. Some students also said their T-shirts were confiscated.

"It is well established law that students do not lose their free speech rights at the schoolhouse door," ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis said in a news release.

In her letter, Glenberg pointed to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed an Iowa student to wear an armband protesting the Vietnam War.

Stafford schools spokeswoman Valerie Cottongim says school officials are reviewing the letter but had no further comment. She previously told the Free Lance-Star ( that a couple of T-shirts were confiscated because students were whipping them around like "rally rags" and creating a disturbance.

"If this behavior took place in the classroom, and was disruptive, certainly there are some grounds for discipline," Glenberg wrote. "But prohibiting students from merely wearing T-shirts expressing a particular opinion is unconstitutional."

As a lark, Thompson put on the banana costume and ran around the football field at halftime of Friday night's Colonial Forge football game. He was detained by a Stafford County deputy sheriff and released when his mother arrived. He was not charged.

Spillman suspended him for 10 days and is recommending he be suspended for the rest of the school year, the Free Lance-Star reported. He is appealing the suspension.

Thompson's mother, Tavia Thompson, told the newspaper that her son was suspended earlier this year for having a cell phone in class.

He also was suspended for 10 days last year for starting a website called "Roasting Station" that enabled students to post silly pictures of themselves for their peers to comment on, Tavia Thompson said. She said school officials, concerned that students would post other people's pictures without their permission, deemed it a violation of the system's cyber bullying policy. She said her son replaced the website with an anti-bullying message.

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