The US Supreme Court rejected on Monday an appeal from a school that suspended two students because they refused to remove bracelets promoting breast cancer awareness.
The decision ends an almost four-year-long case which was started when two girls, Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk, were suspended from their Easton Area School District middle school.
The school had banned bracelets with the slogan "I (heart) Boobies!" which were used to promote breast cancer awareness. The two girls, then aged 12 and 13, refused to take off the bracelets when asked by their principal.
Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk challenged the ban, saying they were trying to promote awareness of the disease at their middle school. They wore the bracelets on their school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day and refused to take them off. The girls filed suit after being suspended from class.
The justices left in place a US appeals court ruling that found the bracelets were not "plainly lewd," nor had they caused a disruption.
"The principle here is that even kids talk about important things, and when they talk about important things, that's what we should be encouraging," Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said Monday. "Kids should be able to talk about things that matter to them in language that is both respectful and familiar to them."
The school district's lawyer, John Freund, said the ruling "robs educators and school boards of the ability to strike a reasonable balance between a student's right to creative expression" and districts' responsibility to make sure schools are "free from sexual entendre and vulgarity."
Easton is one of several school districts around America to ban the bracelets, which are distributed by the nonprofit Keep A Breast Foundation of California.
In a 2011 preliminary ruling, a federal judge in Philadelphia decided "The bracelets [...] can reasonably be viewed as speech designed to raise awareness of breast cancer and to reduce stigma associated with openly discussing breast health."
The judge also noted the school had failed at showing how the bracelets would be disruptive in class. The school had argued the slogan could be taken to mean something different and lead to distractions in school.
The school appealed the decision by a judge that the suspension violated the students' First Amendment rights. The case went onto a federal appeals court in Philadelphia in 2012. In their filings, the lawyers argued that the federal judge's ruling made a mistake by not allowing the school to decide whether the bracelets violated the community's standards for decency.
In 2013 the Easton Area School District board voted to appeal the federal appeals court's ruling, forwarding the case all the way to the Supreme Court. At the time of this vote, the superintendent John Reinhart said he supported the board's decision "The Third Circuit Court has compromised administrators' abilities to intervene in what is and what is not appropriate in school."
Additional reporting from AP