The NorCal High School that saw its players banned from an invitational basketball tournament for their “I Can’t Breathe” shirts is now letting freedom ring as First Amendment rights have been reinstated.
A California school district on Monday reversed a basketball tournament ban on T-shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” and said it would allow high school players to wear the shirts during warm-ups as long as they do not cause problems, lawyers said.
With backing from school officials, the athletic director at Fort Bragg High School, previously told the boys and girls teams from Mendocino High School they could not play in the three-day event if they wore the shirts inspired by the last words of a New York man who died after an officer put him in a chokehold.
Karen Boyd, a First Amendment lawyer who represents one of the players, said the reversal by the Fort Bragg School District came just moments before she intended to file a federal court motion arguing that barring the shirts violated the free speech rights of student athletes.
The agreement will stand as long as the shirts do not cause any serious problems at the tournament. It also allows spectators to wear the shirts, which several did as the tournament got underway Monday at Fort Bragg High School, Boyd said.
“This is always my preference, if we can get things worked out without a lot of court stuff,” she said.
School district lawyer Patrick Wilson said Fort Bragg officials wanted to avoid the cost of a legal battle but remained concerned the shirts could cause a disruption in the community that’s still mourning the death of a sheriff’s deputy killed in the line of duty in March.
“The concern is, you are in a packed auditorium, this is a polarizing issue and it’s about something that happened in New York,” Wilson said. “I think it’s fine for people to protest about it, but emotions are still raw in that area.”
The Mendocino boys team played its first game in the tournament on Monday morning after all but one of the players agreed to forego the shirts. It still has two more games scheduled. Too few members of the girls team accepted the condition and another high school was invited to take their place, Boyd said.
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