"Virginity Rocks" T-shirt Controversy in Albemarle County

By: Mark Tenia Email
By: Mark Tenia Email

May 8, 2008

Virginity Rocks! it's a message some local students are trying to express by wearing a t-shirt. A message that allegedly some school officials don't want expressed on school grounds.

John Whitehead, president of the civil liberties organization The Rutherford Institute says various teenage girls contacted his organization telling him that school officials weren't allowing students to wear the abstinence t-shirts.

"It's clear under the first amendment that this is free expression," said Whitehead.

In response the institute warned officials at Albemarle County and Charlottesville Public Schools that they could face legal action if students wearing the abstinence t-shirts weren't allowed to do so without punishment.

"They shouldn't be in any way discouraging this or telling kids to take the shirt off," said Whitehead.

But Albemarle County Public Schools flatly deny the allegations. In a statement sent to CBS19 news the school systems says:

"Albemarle county public schools understands and strongly supports the first amendment rights of its students. It regrets that the Rutherford Institute did not contact the school or division administration about its concerns until this morning, and that no conversation occurred prior to the news release being issued."

The complete releases sent out by The Rutherford Institute and Albemarle County are below:

Rutherford Institute:

Charlottesville, VA — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have come to the defense of high school students who were allegedly warned by school officials to cease wearing t-shirts to school that proclaim an abstinence message. In a letter to the Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, informed school officials that they could face possible legal action if they do not take steps to ensure that students who wear “Virginity Rocks” t-shirts as part of a campaign to promote abstinence are allowed to do so without threat of punishment. Whitehead also informed school officials that prohibiting students from wearing the abstinence t-shirts places a chilling effect on their free speech rights and infringes on their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“In light of the fact that nearly 26% (1 in 4) of American girls aged 14-19 have at least one sexually transmitted disease, I can’t imagine why any school would object to a message that promotes abstinence over potentially risky sexual activity,” said Whitehead. “It is our hope that school officials will recognize and respect that these students have a constitutional right to exercise their freedom of speech by wearing ‘Virginity Rocks’ t-shirts.”

The Rutherford Institute was asked to intervene after teenagers wearing abstinence t-shirts at both Albemarle High School and Charlottesville High School were allegedly ordered by school officials to change their shirts or turn the shirts inside out. The censored t-shirts, which proclaim “Virginity Rocks” on the front and “I’m loving my Husband And I haven’t even Met Him! MyLifeMyCall.com” on the back, are part of a campaign developed by Worth Your Wait, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and well-being of students in Central Virginia. A primary goal of the campaign is to empower students to resist negative peer pressure when making decisions about sexual activity and to inform students about the physical risks of having sex. Worth Your Wait provides free t-shirts to any students who identify themselves as abstinent teens.

In his letter to Albemarle County school officials, Whitehead pointed out that the school’s decision to prohibit the abstinence t-shirts contradicts the Commonwealth’s curriculum guidelines for family life education. Whitehead also reminded school officials that in keeping with U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, they may only restrict student speech if it would cause a substantial disturbance in the school, invade the rights of others or if it is vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive. Thus, observed Whitehead, “It is difficult to imagine how the shirts worn by Albemarle students—shirts promoting the message of abstinence for public health purposes—could reasonably be considered to be so disturbing as to produce in school officials a well-founded expectation of disruption.”

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

Albemarle County:

Albemarle County Public Schools vigorously denies the allegations raised by The Rutherford Institute today in its press release and e-mailed letter to the Albemarle School Superintendent regarding an alleged warning by school officials “to cease wearing t-shirts to school that proclaim an abstinence message.” This denial comes after an investigation by the Division into the circumstances surrounding the alleged incident.

As revealed by the Division’s investigation, Albemarle High School students were never told “to change their t-shirts or turn them inside out.” According to school officials familiar with the situation, in April, several Albemarle High School students wearing “Virginity Rocks” t-shirts asked the principal if it was permissible for them to wear the shirts, to which he responded that it was. There was no request by the principal for the shirts to be removed or turned inside out, and no administrative action was taken at that time or subsequently.

Albemarle County Public Schools understands and strongly supports the First Amendment rights of its students. It regrets that The Rutherford Institute did not contact the school or division administration about its concerns until this morning, and that no conversation occurred prior to the news release being issued.

"I appreciate the opportunity to share the full facts of this situation, and can assure our students and their parents that Albemarle County Public Schools works very hard to protect all the rights of our students, including free expression, as we strive to provide a positive and productive learning environment." , said Albemarle School Superintendent Pam Moran in discussing the incident.

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