Student Sues Over Suspension For Pro-Second Amendment Shirt

The mother of an Iowa high school student filed a federal lawsuit on Monday after her daughter was suspended for wearing a pro-Second Amendment shirt to her government class.

Janet Bristow of Johnston, Iowa, sued in U.S. District Court alleging the suspension from Johnston High School violated her daughter’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district is just north of Des Moines.

It was last August when Tom Griffin taught his government class that their legal rights to freedom of speech are extremely limited in the classroom. This is despite the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

In this watershed case, the high court majority ruled that a black armband worn by student Mary Beth Tinker to oppose the Vietnam War was protected free speech.

Further, the court found that students do not automatically lose their free speech rights when they enter school property. However, Griffin made his point to the classroom that students in fact have very limited rights on campus.

The teacher emphasized to the students that he would prohibit them from his classroom if they wore clothing depicting “guns, alcohol, or any other ‘inappropriate material.’” Two days later, his student wore her “offensive” shirt.

It was not the first time she wore the clothing emblazoned with “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ do you not understand?” Underneath the lettering was the image of a gun, and she had attended school previously wearing the shirt without complaint.

This time was different. The student was sent out of class to the administration, where she was given the choice of changing out of the shirt or facing suspension. She was handed an out-of-school suspension.

That evening, however, Superintendent Laura Kacer called Bristow to apologize. Shortly thereafter an email message was received from the district’s executive director of school leadership, Chris Billins. He explained that he’d come to realize that the shirt is “free speech.”

Griffin did not apologize to the student upon her return to class or acknowledge his error, and the record of suspension is still in the student’s file.

Attorney Alan Ostergren, who is representing the student, called the teacher’s response an overreaction and said nothing about the shirt threatened anyone.

The suit asks for affirmation that clothing featuring firearms in a non-threatening manner is protected free speech. It calls for a permanent injunction against restricting such clothing as well as compensation for damages, court costs, and other “appropriate” relief.