There continue to be public school officials who tell students that they cannot wear clothing with the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) slogan popularized by President Donald J. Trump. Like it or not, such speech is protected political speech — or at least it should be.
Recently, students in Arizona claimed that school officials informed them that they could not wear MAGA clothing at a protest. In Fresno, Calif., a student has sued her school district after being told she could not wear a MAGA hat. In 2017, a teacher in Ridgeway, Ga., told two students they had to leave class for wearing T-shirts with the slogan. Similarly, a student in Oregon has sued his school district after being forced to remove a pro-Trump T-shirt referencing immigration policy.
These incidents of censorship are troubling, particularly in the wake of the 50-year anniversary of the historic student-speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In Tinker, the court ruled that public school officials in Iowa violated the First Amendment when they disciplined several students for wearing black peace armbands to protest the Vietnam War.
The court explained that students possess free-speech rights at school, particularly passive political speech. “Undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right of freedom of expression,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority in Tinker. Instead, public school officials must be able to show there is a likelihood of a substantial disruption.
A substantial disruption must be something significant and certainly cannot be based on the fact that school officials don’t like MAGA clothing or believe it is inappropriate. Students are the future leaders of our country and must live in an environment that respects constitutional freedoms.
Some may argue that because the president is a polarizing figure seeped in controversy that school officials can censor political speech. This is a troubling perspective. The First Amendment should protect these students’ political speech, just as it protects political speech on the other side of the political spectrum.
As mentioned in a 2017 piece, a public school student should have the right to wear a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt to public school even though the shirt might be considered controversial to some. The same principle applies to pro-Trump MAGA attire. Students have the right to engage in political speech at school. Censorship is not the answer.
David L. Hudson Jr., a visiting associate professor of Legal Practice at Belmont University College of Law, is a First Amendment attorney and author who has written, co-written, or co-edited more than 40 books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).