While anti-Trump bias continues to reign in America’s schools, courageous students are standing up for their First Amendment free-speech rights, and the courts are starting to back them up.
In Oregon, a high school outside Portland suspended student Addison Barnes because he refused to cover up his “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” t-shirt. An assistant principal at the school told Barnes that the shirt had offended a student and a teacher.
Rather than just grousing about the suspension and the school’s assault on his free-speech rights, Barnes took action.
According to Barnes’ lawyer, Bradley Benbrook, Barnes contacted his firm after reading about a similar First Amendment case in Nevada where Benbrook and his colleagues successfully defended the right of a student to wear a pro-gun Second Amendment t-shirt.
With the help of Benbrook’s firm, Barnes brought a federal lawsuit against the high school for its actions.
In a statement, the school district claimed that Barnes’ t-shirt “might cause other students to feel unsafe.”
However, according to the complaint filed by Benbrook’s firm on behalf of Barnes, based on Tinker v. Des Moines, a key U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with student free speech, “School officials may not suppress student speech based on the ‘mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular view’ or ‘an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression.’”
Federal District Judge Michael Mosman agreed with Barnes and his legal team and ordered the school district to stop banning Barnes’ shirt while his lawsuit was being considered.
At the end of July, the school district threw in the towel and decided to settle the case by paying Barnes’ legal fees of $25,000 and issuing an apology to Barnes signed by the school principal.
“We brought this case to police the thought police,” said Benbrook. “The First Amendment does not allow what is going on in too many schools today.”
The Trump administration, which was the subject of the t-shirt controversy, is pushing strongly to defend the free-speech rights of students.
At virtually the same time as Barnes’ settlement victory, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a strongly worded address to Turning Point USA’s High School Leadership Summit.
Sessions observed, “nowhere has there been more arbitrary and capricious restrictions on free speech than in supposedly educational institutions.”
“Far too many schools,” he charged, “are complicit in this effort to prevent genuine debate and engagement with ideas.”
As in the Barnes case, the attorney general pointed out, “Through ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘microagressions,’ cry closets, ‘safe spaces,’ optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs.”
“We cannot have free and deliberative government without freedom of thought,” he noted, and “we cannot have freedom of thought without freedom of speech.”
Free Speech Finds Its Defenders
Sessions cited cases in several states where courts have sided with the Trump administration in upholding the free speech rights of students.
The bottom line, according to Sessions: “This is a truly mainstream defense against a radical, ahistorical, and unconstitutional threat that must be defeated. It is time to put a stake in its heart.”
Addison Barnes would likely agree wholeheartedly with the attorney general. Barnes said he filed his lawsuit to “stand up for myself and other students who might be afraid to express their right-of-center views.”
Barnes observed: “Everyone knows that if a student wears an anti-Trump shirt to school, the teachers won’t think twice about it. But when I wore a pro-Trump shirt, I got suspended. That’s not right.”
It is not right and, thankfully, the courts are coming to the same conclusion.