Self expression is a basic human right. That doesn’t mean you can just spout off whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want without consequence, but assuming that we’re all operating in good faith, common sense dictates that we each have autonomy over the way we dress, the art we consume, and what we do with our bodies.
Say what you will about nü-metal pioneers Korn, but there isn’t a universe in which the band name itself should be considered offensive. Being one of the biggest musical acts of the 1990s, it wasn’t exactly out of place to see high school students at the time wearing shirts with the band’s name on it. Innocuous and innocent as it was, some people in places of authority took a reactionary stance against fans of the band all the same.
In 1998, a high school student in Zeeland, Michigan named Eric VanHoven received a one-day suspension for wearing a black shirt with the Korn logo emblazoned across the front. Speaking to the Holland Sentinel, assistant principal Gretchen Plewes said: “Korn is indecent, vulgar, obscene and intends to be insulting. [Wearing the name Korn] is no different than a person wearing a middle finger on their shirt.”
Although VanHoven’s suspension generated protests within the student body, it is most likely Plewes’ own comments that caught the attention of the band themselves. Threatening legal action, Korn attorney David Baram harkened back to those remarks with a cease-and-desist letter, calling Plewes’ comments “patently false,” the document stated that the assistant principal “maliciously and intentionally” defamed the band with her claims to the Sentinel.
The letter concluded that Plewes’ comments constituted trade defamation against Korn, and thus the band was entitled to “significant compensatory and punitive damages” from Plewes and the Zeeland Public Schools Board of Education.
“Our band sends out positive messages to our fans — we stand for something,” Korn frontman Jonathan Davis said in the statement. “After hearing about something as ridiculous as this, we wanted to stand up for the student’s rights and let the school district know that we’re pissed off at their treatment of the student and their attempt to discredit Korn as artists and human beings.” These sentiments were echoed when the band’s then-drummer David Silveria asked, “Where does an assistant principal get the right to preach her own morals and actually suspend a student?
In her argument, Assistant Principal Plewes contended that VanHoven’s shirt constituted a “walking advertisement for lyrics and lifestyles.”
The controversy seemed to reach a boiling point when the ACLU got involved. “It’s a straight First Amendment, free-speech issue,” said Tom Schram, director of public education for the ACLU’s Michigan office. “The school has no policy banning T-shirts for bands — you could wear a Dave Matthews Band shirt or a Rolling Stones shirt [without reprisal].”
Although the story buzzed around in the press and students continued with their solidarity protests throughout the year (VanHoven was suspended a total of 8 times for his choice of attire), no legal action was ultimately taken. The next year, Zeeland High School doubled-down on their policy. “I met with Principal [James] Hatch and he told me that I would not be wearing Korn T-shirts this year or else I would be suspended again and possibly expelled,” said VanHoven.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.