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Four Cases

How free is free speech? It depends on what--and where--the message is. Some real-life scenarios:

May 29, 1997|ROY RIVENBURG

1. PRIVATE BUSINESS

A man in a T-shirt that read, "I'm Not Gay, but My Boyfriend Is" was booted from Ohio's Cedar Point amusement park. He filed a $25,000 discrimination lawsuit last fall but will probably lose. The 1st Amendment doesn't apply to private businesses and Ohio's civil rights law ignores homosexuals, according to the ACLU. In California and other states that grant civil-rights protections to gays, he'd have better odds.

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2. PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL

In 1996, an Ohio student was sent home from a Columbus-area high school for wearing a shirt that said, "Jesus Is Lord." After a public outcry, the school district reversed itself. Says ACLU spokeswoman Chris Link: "School administrators don't seem to understand that schools, as an arm of the government, may not promote religion, but individual students can." Political messages are similarly protected, but shirts promoting drugs, alcohol or sex have fared poorly in court cases.

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3. PUBLIC COLLEGE

In 1993, UC Riverside officials shut down a fraternity after members wore T-shirts depicting two Mexicans, one in sombrero and serape, drinking on a beach. Result: Unlike students in lower grades, collegians usually get the same free-speech rights as the rest of the public. The fraternity sued on free-speech grounds and the university backed down, reinstating the group and agreeing to send two administrators to 1st Amendment "sensitivity training."

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4. ON THE JOB

In 1994, to protest Bell Atlantic's plan to sack 5,600 people, employees came to work in T-shirts that depicted their jobs as "road kill" on the information superhighway. After refusing to turn the shirts inside out, the employees were sent home without pay. Upshot: The 1st Amendment doesn't apply to employees of a private company, but the union is arguing that federal labor law allows such group protests. Other unions have had mixed results in similar cases. This one is still in arbitration.

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