Student Suspended for Pro Border Wall Shirt Sues -- and Wins

By Molly Zilli, Esq. on May 31, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The immigration debate is certainly not confined to talking heads, shouting matches in the street, and uncomfortable discussions at family gatherings. High schoolers are also engaged in the discussion (although it often hardly looks like a discussion, even among adults). However, when one student expressed his views with a pro border wall t-shirt at school, he was suspended. While his free-speech lawsuit against the school is pending, he's at least won a partial victory in court.

Teacher and Student Offended

Addison Barnes says his teacher previously announced that the discussion topic for their "People and Politics" class was going to be immigration on the day in question. So, he came prepared to represent his viewpoint, wearing a t-shirt with the words "Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co." and "The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller" printed on it.

Barnes says an assistant principal removed him from the class and told him to cover his shirt because the teacher and a student were offended by it. He did cover it, but uncovered it within a few minutes. He says he was then removed from the class by a security guard, taken to the assistant principal's office, and given the choice between covering the shirt or going home. He went home, and the school counted the absence as a suspension.

Judge Allows Shirt for Rest of School Year

Barnes' lawsuit claims that the school's actions against him and his border wall shirt violated his free speech rights. When it comes to free speech in schools, the Supreme Court has said that free expression is protected by the First and 14th Amendments, but that it can be trumped if the school can show a given expression cases "substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others."

The judge in the case explained that a decision will have to balance Barnes' right to "core political speech" against the effect of the speech on the listener, that is, whether the shirt could incite violence or cause a substantial disruption. Barnes' school is one-third Hispanic, and they have had a recent student walkout related to immigration.

While the judge said that more evidence is needed in order to make that decision, the judge ruled that Barnes is free to wear his border wall shirt for the remainder of the school year (all five days of it).

No matter what side of the debate you're on, everyone wants to be able to express their views, and yet no one wants to be subjected to offensive messages. If your free-speech rights have been violated, contact an attorney to assess the strength of your case.

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