School Officials Forced Students To Remove 'Let's Go Brandon' Sweatshirts. Now, They're Suing.
"Criticism of the president is core political speech protected by the First Amendment," says the students' attorney.
Last year, a Michigan middle school forced two students to remove their "Let's Go Brandon" sweatshirts because they violated a dress code rule prohibiting clothing with "profane" slogans. The students have now filed a lawsuit against their school with the support of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment nonprofit.
"These students should not only be allowed to express their political beliefs but should be encouraged to do so," said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal in a Tuesday press release. "America's students must be free to exercise their constitutional rights, not just learn about them."
Last spring, the plaintiffs—D.A. and X.A. in the lawsuit—wore sweatshirts featuring the words "Let's Go Brandon" to Tri County Middle School in Howard City, Michigan. The phrase has a fascinating history and is widely understood to be pro-Trump or at least derogatory towards Biden. Andrew Buikema, the school's assistant principal, ordered both boys to remove the sweatshirts or face punishment. According to the lawsuit, Buikema told D.A. that his "'Let's Go Brandon' sweatshirt was equivalent to 'the f-word.'" When D.A. wore the sweatshirt again, another school official told him that the sweatshirt was "not permitted." The lawsuit states that when X.A. wore his sweatshirt, he was sent to see Buikema, who told X.A. that "the school does not allow students to wear clothing with political speech."
According to the suit, the school's dress code prohibits clothing with "messages or illustrations that are lewd, indecent, vulgar, or profane, or that advertise any product or service not permitted by law to minors," none of which apply to "Let's Go Brandon." The dress code also has a broader and vaguer rule banning apparel that is "disruptive to the teaching and/or learning environment by calling undue attention to oneself."
However, this censorship is not about a dress code or teaching disruptions. The complaint says that in June 2022, Buikema told an unnamed student to remove a Pro-Trump flag he wore during a field day event. Students wearing flags supporting other political causes—like LGBT pride flags—were not ordered to put away their banners. The lawsuit says no documented disruption was caused by any of these acts of political expression.
In May 2022, D.A. and X.A. sent a cease-and-desist letter to the school, ordering school officials to allow students to wear "Let's Go Brandon" slogans, noting the lack of disruption caused by the sweatshirts. However, the school disagreed, replying that the school "prohibits clothing or styles of expression that are vulgar or profane. The commonly known meaning of the slogan 'Let's Go Brandon' is intended to ridicule the President with profanity … 'Let's Go Brandon' is a transparent code for using profanity against the President."
On Tuesday, FIRE filed a lawsuit against the school, arguing that, in banning non-profane and non-disruptive political speech, the school violated D.A. and X.A.'s First Amendment rights. Further, the lawsuit also challenges the school's dress code—arguing that a ban on clothing that calls "undue attention to oneself" is overly vague, paving the way for viewpoint discrimination.
"There is no legitimate, let alone compelling state interest in prohibiting peaceful, non-disruptive support for or opposition to political candidates and figures in schools, nor is it the least restrictive means of achieving such an interest," the complaint writes. "Using governmental authority to suppress one student's political views but allowing other students to express a different political view is an obvious constitutional violation."
Public schools do not have the legal authority to ban expression merely because it is political. "Criticism of the president is core political speech protected by the First Amendment," FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick said in a Tuesday press release. "The slogan exists as a way to express an anti-Biden message without using profanity," he writes. "A public school district cannot censor speech just because it might cause someone to think about a swear word."