Argument over NRA T-shirt gets eighth-grader jailed. Dress code run amok?

A student at a West Virginia middle school was suspended and arrested after a confrontation with a teacher over an NRA T-shirt with a picture of a rifle on it. Public schools have some leeway in setting dress codes, the Supreme Court has found.  

Jared Ramsdell/Journal Inquirer/AP
Timothy Coley (l.) of Bristol, Conn., and Josephy Boniface of East Granby, Conn., talk during a gun rights rally at the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford, Conn., on Saturday.

In West Viriginia, the National Rifle Association and its supporters are facing another gun control effort – albeit on a smaller scale.

On Thursday, the same day that the gun lobby and its supporters in Congress roundly defeated a package of gun control bills pushed by President Obama, eighth-grader Jared Marcum was suspended by Logan Middle School and briefly jailed for wearing a pro-NRA T-shirt.

The T-shirt had picture of a gun, and school officials deemed it a violation of their dress code, which bans profanity, discrimination, or violence on clothing.

Jared says the decision violates both his First Amendment right to free speech and his Second Amendment right to bear arms, and his father has vowed to "go to the ends of the earth" to clear his son's name – which could include filing federal or civil lawsuits against the district, a lawyer for the family said.

"What they're doing is trying to take away my rights, my freedom of speech, and my Second Amendment," Jared told WOWK-TV.

Jared is not the only student to face heightened sensitivity to images of guns in schools since the Newtown, Conn., massacre last December. In February, school officials at Genoa-Kingston Middle School in Illinois told a student he would be suspended if he did not turn inside out a Marines T-shirt that showed M16 rifles.

The question of what messages or images public schools can ban under dress codes has evolved in recent decades.

In the landmark 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court ruled that students could wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate,” the court said.

But those rights have been refined and narrowed in the years since. In 2010, a federal appeals court found that a school had not violated the Constitution when it banned a student from wearing a T-shirt with “Freedom of Speech” printed on the front and the text of the First Amendment on the back. The dress code at Waxahachie High School in Texas banned all messages on T-shirts, making the ban content neutral.

In other cases, the court has allowed school officials to prohibit student speech that is sexually explicit, lewd, or indecent, or that advocates illegal drug use.

In West Virginia, Jared was told to stay home from school on Friday, and several friends who wore T-shirts with images of guns on them to school as a sign of solidarity were told to take them off. The day before, a dispute between Jared and a Logan Middle School teacher resulted in Jared being arrested and charged with obstruction and disturbing the education process, WOWK reported.

Jared says he has received Facebook posts and phone calls from across the country supporting him. "People are saying that I did the right thing, that they're proud," Jared told WOWK.

Coincidentally, the senator whose bipartisan compromise on expanded background checks of gun purchases was defeated Thursday – prompting Mr. Obama to rail against pro-gun senators and to call the gun lobby liars – also hails from West Virginia. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) previously had an "A" rating from the NRA.

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