Addison Barnes almost made it through his senior year at Liberty High School without triggering a First Amendment battle—but not quite. According to a new federal lawsuit filed on Barnes' behalf, administrators at the Oregon school banned the student from wearing a tee-shirt in support of Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"If people are offended by his shirt—that's their right to be offended," Mike McLane, the student's attorney, told local newscasters. "But it's also his right to have his opinion, as well. The constitutional line isn't who's offended. The constitutional line is there a specific and clear disturbance being created by the expression of the student's political speech." And in this case, said McLane—who also serves as a state representative and the House Republican leader—there was no disturbance except for the one instigated by school officials.
Barnes wore the offending shirt to his politics class on a day they were scheduled to discuss immigration. According to the suit, the assistant principal told Barnes that his shirt—which reads "Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.," followed by "The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller" (a quote from Trump's primary debate days)—was offensive to the teacher of the class and to at least one student.
She told him cover up the shirt if he wanted to return to class, which he did. But once back in class, Barnes again unveiled the t-shirt—this time prompting a visit from the school's security guard, who took him to the assistant principal's office. She allegedly threatened Barnes with suspension if he did not cover up his t-shirt. When he still wouldn't comply, she issued a suspension and sent him home.
In his suit against the Hillsboro School District and Liberty High School, Barnes accuses officials of "suppression of a student's political speech based on other students' and teachers' alleged discomfort with the ideas and message" that the speech conveyed.
Barnes "engaged in a respectful, silent, and peaceful expression of his political views by wearing a t-shirt supporting the immigration and homeland security policies of President Donald J. Trump to school," the suit says. Making him cover the shirt or face disciplinary action "was unconstitutional," since "the First Amendment protects students' right to speak on political or societal issues—including the right to express what school officials may consider unpopular or controversial opinions, or viewpoints that might make other students uncomfortable."
The school district has said that it will not comment on the pending case, which was assigned this week to Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta of the U.S. District Court in Portland. The next case deadlines are set for the fall.
If things did play out as Barnes says, it would seem he has a good chance of winning the case. Whatever you think of the kid's shirt or his preferred border-security plans—and I'm not a fan of either—his understanding of the First Amendment is sound. If only the same could be said for the school's administrators.