In early May, a student at an Oregon high school student sued after he was suspended for wearing a “border wall” t-shirt championing President Trump’s pledge to secure the border.
A federal judge has weighed in on the case, and like much the President’s policies, the outcome was a winning one for the student, Addison Barnes.
The judge issued a restraining order on the school, keeping them from enforcing a policy that banned the shirt. The school argued the shirt was racially divisive and disrupted class. They feared students would start an uprising in protest, jeopardizing security and safety.
Even in a part of the country where judges tend to lean left politically, the ruling was a no-brainer. The judge seemed unmoved by the school’s arguments barring Barnes from wearing the shirt.
Addison Barnes has one week to wear his “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” shirt at Liberty High School before he graduates.
A federal judge Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order, essentially barring the school for the rest of the school year from enforcing its earlier decision prohibiting Barnes from wearing the shirt.
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman found the Hillsboro School District could not justify its censorship. The judge said he balanced constitutionally protected speech with the orderly running of a school.
The school district is entitled to be concerned about the response of other students to the T-shirt, the judge said. But the “thin” court record so far offers little support for the district’s argument that the shirt could “substantially disrupt” the school, he said.
“There’s not enough to go on here to show that sort of legitimate concern justifying censorship of this core political speech,” Mosman ruled.
Barnes earlier this month sued the high school, the principal and school district, arguing they violated his First Amendment rights when he was told to go home or cover up the shirt in class.
On Jan. 19, the 18-year-old senior was suspended for wearing the shirt backing President Donald Trump’s immigration and Homeland Security policies. The shirt reads: “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” with the phrase “The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller.”
School officials defended their actions, saying the shirt would contribute to a “hostile learning environment” and would make students feel insecure in school, noting that about 33 percent of the high school’s students are of Hispanic descent. They also said the school has been the site of recent student walkouts and sit-ins to protest Trump’s immigration policies.
The district also described increased racial tensions arising from racially charged language around immigration, school officials said.
“This particular school district has a population that is one-third Hispanic. This is not Lake Oswego. This is not West Linn,” attorney Peter Mersereau argued for the Hillsboro School District.
Because of the school’s unique population, the court should give deference to administrators who “reasonably forecast the T-shirt would disrupt the school,” Mersereau said.
The judge interjected, asking, “So First Amendment protections vary from high school to high school?”
Barnes’ lawyers urged the court to consider the context of what occurred.
Barnes wore the shirt to his first-period “People and Politics” class, where the topic of discussion was immigration. During class, Vice Principal Amanda Ryan-Fear entered, removed Barnes and directed him to cover the shirt, saying at least one other student and a teacher had said the shirt offended them.
At first, Barnes did what he was told but then moments later decided what he was asked to do wasn’t right and uncovered the shirt in class. Later that period, the vice principal returned, saw Barnes and sent a school security officer to remove him from class and take him to the school office. There, the vice principal told him that he could be suspended for up to 10 days for “defiance,” according to Barnes and his lawyers.
Given the choice to cover his shirt or go home, Barnes went home and the school treated his absence as a suspension. After his father visited the school and met with the principal days later, the school later rescinded the suspension but told Barnes he couldn’t wear the shirt again in school.
Barnes’ attorneys argued that “sanctuary city” were celebrated in one classroom, so he should be able to wear a shirt advocating the opposite side of the issue, as long as it did not otherwise violate school policy, like include vulgar language.
Barnes said he didn’t see any disruption to the class beyond his removal. “It seems particularly unfair to me that my speech is censored, when the school is open to competing political views,” he wrote in a statement given to the court.
His lawyers argued that the shirt represented “pure political speech,” caused no disruptions, didn’t interfere with the school, promote or advocate illegal activity and contained nothing obscene or vulgar. They further argued that the school can’t muffle one side of the immigration debate while allowing one of Barnes’ teachers to display a sign in front of a classroom that reads, “Sanctuary City, Welcome Home.”
“The First Amendment protects students’ right to speak on political or societal issues – including the right to express what school officials may consider unpopular or controversial opinions, or viewpoints that might make other students uncomfortable,” his lawyers Bradley Benbrook and Ben Becker wrote in a motion for the temporary restraining order. “Through his shirt, Barnes sought to comment on a national debate about a serious political and societal issue.”
Since the era of protests against the Vietnam War, the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to hold that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” they wrote.
The school district pointed to several factors that led to its actions: Several students in Barnes’ class put their heads down on their desks when he walked in wearing the shirt; a May 2016 student walkout and sit-in at Liberty supported a statewide walkout in response to a “Build the Wall” sign placed at another school, Forest Grove High School; about 200 Liberty students participated in a February 2017 sit-in protesting Trump’s immigration policies; and Hispanic students the last two years have expressed fear to school administrators about potential deportation of some family members.
Mosman said there was nothing in the record to suggest that 200 students walking out of the school was necessarily “substantially disruptive,” or that the sit-in lasted 10 minutes or 10 hours or disrupted classes.
“The T-shirt is core protected speech, and walking down the streets of Hillsboro, no state official -petty or grand – would be able to do much about that T-shirt legitimately under the Constitution,” the judge said.
In a school setting, while administrators have the right to consider the effect of speech on others, there’s nothing in the record to show that Barnes’ t-shirt was so harmful either to a single student or a group of students, Mosman found.
After the hearing, when asked if Barnes was going to wear the shirt to school before he graduated, his lawyer Benbrook responded, “Yeah, that was the idea.”
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