A Nevada school district unlawfully required a student not to wear a gun rights T-shirt, according to a First Amendment lawsuit filed today in federal court.
The lawsuit says that an 8th-grade student at Kendyl Depoali Middle School in Reno was prohibited from wearing a Firearms Policy Coalition t-shirt, which included the words "Don't Tread On Me" and a coiled rattlesnake—a reference to the Revolution-era Gadsden flag—but no actual depiction of a firearm. It also included the letters "2A," meaning the Second Amendment.
Brooke May, a teacher at the school, claimed last month that the shirt violated the dress code and said the 8th-grader could have his "Second Amendment rights when [he] turns[s] eighteen," according to the complaint. The dress code prohibits "obscene" language, anything that "may be deemed a safety issue," and "anything that promotes weapons."
The student, who is named by the initials G.M. in the complaint because he is a minor, responded by covering the shirt with a sweatshirt. He has not worn it to school again.
In short, this is a First Amendment case about the Second Amendment. The groups that filed the suit hope to push back against the many public school districts that lack an appreciation for both free speech and gun rights.
In this case, the Washoe County School District does seem willing to recognize free speech—when it's anti-gun. Two months ago, as proposed anti-gun walkouts were being planned, the school district released a statement saying that "as a district, we have always placed a high value on student voice." And the district (after some initial back-and-forth) decided not to suspend a student who, during an anti-gun walkout on a school day, called the office of Rep. Mark Amodei (R–Nev.) to say, "Congresspeople who are not acting on gun control reforms need to get off their fucking asses and do something."
G.M.'s parents, Audrey and Shaun Guardanapo, work in law enforcement and are members of the Firearms Policy Coalition. After they discussed the t-shirt prohibition with school officials as a civil rights issue, and the school refused to back down, the parents asked the coalition for help.
"We believe that it's incredibly important to make sure that all viewpoints are being respected," says coalition chairman Brandon Combs. "That's why we published our guide to K-12 speech, have a Legal Action Hotline, and file cases like this—to make sure that people, including students like this 8th grader, can use their First Amendment right to defend and promote their Second Amendment rights."
Neither the school district superintendent nor the principal immediately replied to questions from Reason. The case is supported and funded by the Firearms Policy Coalition and the Firearms Policy Foundation. Eugene Volokh, Brad Benbrook, Steve Duvernay, and David O'Mara represent G.M. A request for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction is also in the works.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Tinker case in 1969, it's been clear that public schools are constitutionally required to tolerate controversial and unpopular opinions as long as they're not clearly disruptive to class activities. "State-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism," the court ruled. "School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students."
Plaintiffs in the case filed today hope that the courts will remind the school district that the same rule applies. "The shirt did not promote or advocate illegal activity; it contained no violent or offensive imagery; nothing on it was obscene, vulgar, or profane," the complaint says. "Through his shirt, G.M. sought to comment on a national debate about a serious issue, and to voice support of constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment."