Hillcrest High students might be able to wear an anti-tobacco T-shirt to school.

But add the word "queer," a cigarette cartoon and a double entendre message, and they'll find trouble.

That's what a few students found when they sported "Queers Kick Ash" T-shirts, reflecting an anti-tobacco campaign sponsored by the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) Community Center of Utah.

Tuesday morning, about two dozen rallied outside the school for the right to wear the shirt, which they — and American Civil Liberties Union — say is a free-speech issue. They also don't want administrators to make good on threats to abolish the after-school gay-straight alliance over the flap.

"The shirts are obviously anti-tobacco," said Melinda "bob" Maureen, director of youth programs for the center. "This is one more time the school is saying, you're not allowed to be you."

Last week, a handful of students wore the shirts, intended in a hip, thought-provoking way to prevent gay teens from turning to smoking. The GLBT center says tobacco use is a bigger problem in the gay community than it is among heterosexuals.

But Hillcrest Principal Linda Sandstrom said the slogan is inappropriate.

District policy bars clothes containing "advertising, promotions and likeness of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs or which are contrary to the educational mission" and "crude, vulgar, profane, violent, or sexually suggestive" messages.

Sandstrom believes the cigarette, "kick ash" double entendre, and word "queer," which some students have complained about being called, fits the definition.

Students wearing the shirts were told to change or go home, Sandstrom said. Three students were suspended for refusing to comply.

Early Tuesday, students drove home their point by rallying at a school parking entrance. They wore the T-shirts and carried signs urging them to love, not hate, then went to school for classtime, Maureen said.

The ACLU followed up with a letter, demanding school officials reverse the suspensions and shirt ruling.

"The Supreme Court has firmly established that students have a constitutional right to political speech and expression, and when 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' is one of the most popular programs on television and universities all over the country have queer theory and queer studies programs, there's no doubt that it's a commonly-used political term," Tamara Lange, staff attorney with the ACLU's national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said in a prepared statement.

The ACLU also decried an assistant principal's alleged threat to halt the after-school gay-straight alliance over the flap. ACLU-Utah staff attorney Margaret Plane says the alliance has nothing to do with the T-shirts, and wants to work with the school.

Sandstrom had not read the letter Tuesday afternoon. She also said she didn't know what an assistant principal told the students, but that she never threatened to shut down the gay-straight alliance.

"This is about shirts as far as I'm concerned," Sandstrom said. "This morning was a little disruptive" in that some students were late for class. "This is an educational institution, and I don't want them involved in anything that's going to jeopardize that."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com