A public high school student in Wisconsin engaged in protected expression when he wore t-shirts with images of and messages about guns and gun ownership to his school, a federal district court judge has ruled. The decision shows that public school officials may not ban speech simply because they don’t like it or find it inappropriate. Generally, public school officials must be able to show that the shirt caused a substantial disruption or likely would cause such a disruption.
Matthew Schoenecker wore several t-shirts to Markesan High School that irked school officials. One of his shirts had the legend “Celebrate Diversity” on the front, underneath an image depicting several firearms. Another shirt has the word “LOVE” on the front with the letters of the word spelled by images of weapons with the “L” made of handguns, “O” of hand grenades, “V” of knives and “E” of a rifle. He later wore another t-shirt with no images but the following message: “IF GUNS KILL PEOPLE, I GUESS PENCILS misspell words CARS drive drunk & SPOONS make people fat.”
School officials warned Schoenecker not to wear the shirts anymore. When he did, they sent him to “the cubicle,” a form of in-school suspension. The school later amended its dress code to specifically prohibit student clothing with images of weapons.
Schoenecker sued, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights. The school argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed, because the shirts were not protected expression and that Schoencker’s lawsuit caused a disruption at school with the presence of news media.
However, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman refused to dismiss Schoenecker’s lawsuit in his November 9, 2018, opinion in Schoenecker v. Koopman. Instead, Judge Adelman ruled that Schoenecker was likely to prevail on his First Amendment claim.
First, Judge Adelman addressed the argument that the shirts were not a form of protected expression. The judge found this was an easy question, as the t-shirt with the message about guns not killing people constitutes protected expression because it comments on the issue of gun ownership and is a “personal belief on a matter of public concern.” Judge Adelman also reasoned that the “CELEBRATE DIVERSITY” and “LOVE” t-shirts also constituted expression, because they were either parody or based on a work of art.
The next issue concerned the appropriate legal standard to apply in the case. The court determined that the appropriate legal standard came from the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous student-speech case involving black armbands – Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school officials cannot punish students for their speech unless school officials can show that the speech causes a substantial disruption or is very likely to do so.
The school officials argued that the t-shirts caused a substantial disruption because after the plaintiff filed his lawsuit, news media descended upon the school campus to interview plaintiff. According to school officials, this disrupted other students.
Judge Adelman rejected this argument, writing: “Any disruption related to the media presence on campus was not caused by the plaintiff’s shirts, but by the defendant’s decision to censor the shirts and the ensuing lawsuit.” In other words, Judge Adelman explained “the disruption cannot be attributed to the shirts themselves.”
The judge ordered school officials to allow Schoenecker to wear his three t-shirts to school.
The decision shows the truth of an underlying message delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago in Tinker – that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”