Civil Liberties

NRA T-Shirt Banned From School for Promoting Violence [UPDATED: School District Apologizes]


Photo by Jeb Bullwinkle

Last month Haley Bullwinkle, a sophomore at Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, California, was ordered to change out of a National Rifle Association T-shirt, which a guard claimed violated the school's dress code by encouraging violence. How so? It included an image of a hunter holding a rifle. The Blaze reports that Canyon High's clothing rules do not actually mention images of hunters or guns, instead banning attire that "promotes or depicts: gang, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, violence, criminal activity, obscenity, [or] the degrading of cultures, ethnicity, gender, religion and/or ethnic values." Haley's father, Jeb, an NRA member, wonders why the T-shirt was deemed too violent when the school's color guard parades with wooden rifles and its crest features spears. "Students don't leave their First Amendment rights at the door," observes a lawyer retained by Haley's parents. "We're looking for [the school] to acknowledge that this T-shirt and T-shirts like it aren't banned by school policy."

How long do you think that will take? The typical pattern in cases like this is for school officials to stubbornly defend a stupid decision right up until the moment they fold, presumably after consulting with their lawyers. While school officials have considerable leeway in maintaining discipline and good order, the courts are not likely to look kindly on speech restrictions that smack of politically motivated censorship. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of high school students to wear black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. More recently, in the 2007 case Morse v. Frederick, the Court said a student could be punished for displaying a banner saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at an off-campus event. But the rationale in the latter case was that the banner promoted illegal drug use. By contrast, it cannot reasonably be argued that Haley Bullwinkle's NRA T-shirt (above) advocated criminal activity.

She was probably smart not to insist on her First Amendment rights at the time, however. As Zenon Evans noted here last June, a West Virginia student who refused to comply with an order to remove his NRA T-shirt was suspended, arrested, and charged with "obstructing an officer." The charge was dropped in August. In that case, as in this one, the school's dress code made no mention of firearms, although it did ban "clothing and accessories that display…violence." The kid's shirt featured a rifle and the slogan "NRA: Protect your right."

Update: The NRA reports that after its lawyers contacted the Orange County School District, Superintendent Michael Christensen offered an "unconditional apology" to Haley's parents for the T-shirt incident. Christensen issued the following statement:

Canyon High School has a policy prohibiting clothing depicting or promoting violence. In this incident, a student was referred to the counseling office by a security officer because she was wearing a shirt with a logo that included a rifle. The student was instructed by a staff member to change her shirt and was provided another shirt to wear.

The parents contacted the principal a week after the incident to express concern. At that time, the principal was unaware of the incident and provided an initial response regarding the school policy on clothing that depicts violence. After reviewing pictures of the shirt, the principal determined that the shirt logo does not promote violence.

The family was contacted and advised that wearing the shirt was not contrary to the school dress code policy and the student will be permitted to wear the shirt. The student and family received an apology and assurance that training will be provided to staff so an incident like this does not occur again.