We previously discussed the case of Jared Marcum, 14, who was suspended and arrested for wearing a t-shirt supporting the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association. While many of us derided the arrest of a student (and the continuation of a trend toward criminalizing our schools), most people assumed that the police or prosecutors would immediately show a modicum of sense in refusing to bring the charges of disrupting the educational process and obstructing an officer. We were wrong but the charges were ultimately dismissed. Now, the family in West Virginia is suing.
The case began when a a teacher spotted the t-shirt with the NRA logo and an image of a hunting rifle with the phrase, “Protect your right.” Marcum was stopped by school secretary Anita Gore, who instructed him to turn the shirt inside our or face suspension from school. Another teacher David Burroway agreed the shirt violated the dress code and pulled him to the principal’s office by his arm, according to the lawsuit. He was told to turn the t-shirt inside out and protested. An argument ensued. Now at this point, I believe that the teacher is wrong to deny this small act of free speech, but I also believe that Marcum is wrong to get into an argument with a teacher. He should have complied or, better yet, asked to see the principal. However, at most this is a simple question for a teacher-parent meeting and not a matter for the police. It seems that the teacher allowed this to escalate in the lunchroom and Marcum should have been more respectful.
The family is now seeking $200,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages for alleged violations of Marcum’s First and 14th Amendment rights. The school’s own dress code will be the foundation for the lawsuit because the tee-shirt will be defended as not having violent of threatening image. It could offer an interesting point of analysis for free speech. Gun ownership is a constitutionally protected individual right. Would a tee-shirt proclaiming the need to protect free speech be viewed as violent if it showed the minutemen or an image from the French Revolution?
It will not surprise many on this blog that I tend to run home to free speech in such conflicts. This seems too much of content-based regulation for my tastes. We have previously followed the suspensions and discipline of students under zero tolerance policies that are used by teachers to justify zero judgment or responsibility. I have long criticized zero tolerance policies that have led to suspensions and arrests of children (here, here and here and here and here). Here is a prior column on the subject (and here).Children have been suspended or expelled for drawing stick figures or wearing military hats or bringing Legos shaped like guns or even having Danish in the shape of a gun. Despite the public outcry over the completely irrational and abusive application of zero tolerance rules, administrators and teachers continue to apply them blindly. If you do not have to exercise judgment, you can never been blamed for any failure. Conversely, even when the public outcry results in a reversals, teachers and administrators never seem punished with the same vigor for showing no judgment or logic in punishing a child.
What do you think?