Battle against 'boobies' bracelets costs Pa. taxpayers nearly $400G

Taxpayers in an eastern Pennsylvania community are out nearly $400,000 after the school district lost a four-year legal battle over breast cancer awareness bracelets officials deemed offensive.

The Easton Area School District was assessed the full legal bill for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union’s First Amendment battle, waged on behalf of students who got in trouble for wearing wristbands inscribed with “I (heart) boobies.”

"I am happy we won this case because it's important that students have the right to stand up for a cause and try to make a difference," Brianna Hawk, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement released by the  ACLU. "We just wanted to raise awareness about breast cancer."

Brianna, who was 12 at the time, and Kayla Martinez, who was 13, were in middle school when they challenged their school’s ban on the bracelets in October, 2010. With the ACLU representing them, the girls claimed their First Amendment rights to free speech and sued the district in federal court in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin ruled in their favor, but the school district appealed, calling the bracelets' messages “vulgar” and subject to regulation. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals found in a 9-5 opinion that the breast cancer awareness message was protected by the First Amendment, notwithstanding its potential to offend, because it is a social or political statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal sought by the district, leaving in place the lower court's August decision.

The girls did not seek damages and the $385,000 settlement was negotiated to cover the ACLU’s legal fees and court costs. Under the federal Civil Rights Act, anyone who wins a lawsuit challenging a violation of a civil right such as freedom of expression can seek attorney fees and court costs.

Easton was one of several school districts around the country to ban the bracelets, which are distributed by the nonprofit Keep A Breast Foundation, of Carlsbad, Calif.

A security guard saw the girls wearing the bracelets on Breast Cancer Awareness day in 2010 and asked them to remove them, according to the Express-Times of Lehigh Valley. The girls refused, and were suspended for “disrespect, defiance and disruption” and barred from a school dance.'s Kristen Sullivan contributed to this report