A Northern California high school basketball tournament has banned the wearing of “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts.
The banning of the T-shirts came to light when Fort Bragg High School disinvited Mendocino High School from the tournament over concerns the school’s players would wear T-shirts printed with the words “I Can’t Breathe” during warmups, reports AP.
The wearing of clothing with the words “I Can’t Breathe” printed on them has become a silent means of protest against police brutality in the American justice system, following the decisions to not indict the police officers who were involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown earlier this year.
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“I can’t breathe” were the final words of Eric Garner before he died during an altercation with police.
The boys' team from Mendocino High School was reinstated into the tournament after all but one player agreed to not wear the T-shirt.
Not enough of the girls' team agreed to field a tournament squad and, therefore, will not participate.
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The “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts were first worn by Mendocino varsity team players before a game with Fort Bragg on Dec. 16, according to the girls coach, Caedyn Feehan.
The T-shirts were also worn by the girls before games at two other tournaments. There was no issue taken on either occasion, Feehan said.
"I didn't even know what it meant. I thought it was a joke about how I had conditioned them so hard," Feehan said. "None of the administrators knew what it was or that any of them were doing it in advance. This was entirely for their cause that they had strong feelings about."
Gawker reports Fort Bragg Principal Rebecca Walker released a written statement on the matter, citing safety as a reason for the banning of the T-shirts.
"To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament," Principal Walker said. "[She also commended the students] for paying attention to what is going on in the world around them."
Marc Woods, the father of 16-year-old Connor who refused to agree to Fort Bragg’s terms and will sit-out the game, views the banning as a refusal to allow free speech.
"This is completely a First Amendment issue," Woods said. "That's why I'm offended."
Woods has brought the issue to the American Civil Liberties Union. He referred to the protection granted by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to high school students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War (U.S. Supreme Court: Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969).
Fort Bragg administrators have said if anyone protests the ban on the T-shirts at the tournament they will be asked to leave.