The mother of an Iowa student sued her daughter’s high school Monday after her daughter was suspended for wearing a pro-gun T-shirt.
Janet Bristow filed a federal lawsuit against the Johnston Community School District and several individuals on behalf of her daughter, identified as “A.B.” in court documents.
The complaint alleges that in Sept. 2022, just two days after A.B.’s teacher, Tom Griffin, covered students’ free speech rights in government class, A.B. was suspended from school for wearing a shirt that said “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ do you not understand?” and featured an image of a rifle.
Bristow argues that her daughter had worn this shirt to school before without incident, and that it was meant to be an obvious commentary on Second Amendment rights. In the complaint, Bristow names not only the teacher who ousted her daughter from class, but also associate principals Nate Zittergruen and Randy Klein, principal Ryan Woods, school leadership director Chris Billings, and the Johnston Community School District itself.
Bristow argues that not only should the district have been aware of her daughter’s right to wear such a shirt, but that Griffin, an expert in constitutional rights, should have been clear on protections owed to A.B.
According to the complaint, Griffin “is not the ordinary teacher when it comes to knowing and understanding students’ rights to free speech under the U.S. Constitution.” Rather, it says, Griffin also works as an adjunct professor of government and history at two nearby colleges, and was even named a James Madison Fellow — an award which came with tuition assistance for his master’s degree — for his exceptional high school teaching of the Constitution. Griffin even published articles on First Amendment law, which Bristow quoted in the complaint.
Despite Griffin’s academic expertise, though, Bristow says he told his government class that “although they had some right to free speech, that right was ‘extremely limited’ when the students stepped on school property.”
The complaint went on to detail just what Griffin told his class of high-school seniors:
Griffin told his students that their teacher (in this case, him) would decide what was acceptable speech in the classroom. And with respect to clothing—which was at the very core of the Tinker case—Griffin told his students that he would not allow students to wear any clothing that depicts guns, alcohol, or any other “inappropriate material.”
Griffin’s alleged reference to Tinker points to the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court precedent that famously held that neither “students [n]or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The complaint does not mention a far more recent ruling: the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. In that case, involving the “Snapchatting Cheerleader,” the Court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of a high-school freshman who posted “F— cheer” on social media.
In the ruling, now-retired Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the cheerleader’s post was “the kind of pure speech to which, were she an adult, the First Amendment would provide strong protection.”
Breyer also commented that “[i]t might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections,” but that sometimes, it is “necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.”
Bristow argues that given the shirt’s quote of the Second Amendment, her daughter was “clearly making a political statement” that should have been protected. However, Bristow says that even after she and A.B. made extensive arguments about A.B.’s free speech rights, neither the school administrators nor the district budged.
The complaint demands monetary damages, a “declaration that wearing clothing depicting a firearm in a non-threatening, non-violent manner is protected under the First Amendment,” and a permanent injunction prohibiting the school from banning clothing “that depicts firearms in a non-violent, non-threatening manner.”
A.B.’s suspension occurred in 2022, before the recent case in which a 6-year-old elementary school student in Virginia apparently brought a gun to school and shot his teacher. While the Virginia case is unrelated to free speech rights, the Bristow lawsuit will now proceed against the backdrop of the Mahanoy win for First Amendment rights as well as the many tragic instances of gun violence in schools.
A representative from the Johnston Community School District said Thursday that it had not yet been served with the Complaint, but declined to comment further.
Law&Crime contacted Bristow’s attorney for comment Thursday, but did not receive a response.
You can read the full complaint here.
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