Tinkering With Free Speech: Federal Court Rules Against Louisiana High School After Painting Over Student’s Trump Mural

Many of us in the free speech community have long complained that the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is often dismissed in cases addressing the free speech rights of students. The famous decision declared that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Yet, courts have regularly curtailed free speech rights in deference to school officials maintaining discipline and order in their schools, even in the regulation of speech outside of schools. One rare victory emerged this week in Louisiana where a federal judge ruled that Superintendent Frances Varnado and Washington Parish School District board violated the rights of a high school senior by painting over his mural of President Donald Trump. U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon relied on Tinker and declared the mural to be protected political speech.

Seniors at Pine Junior-Senior High School can pay $25 for an assigned parking spot and paint the spot as they deem fit, so long as the painting does not include profanity, lewd images and other students’ names.  Ned Thomas painted an image of President Trump donned in stars and stripes sunglasses and a bandana.

Superintendent Varnado and the school board declared the mural “too political” and ordered it painted over. Varnado insisted that she was merely trying to “to avoid controversy, not stir it up.”  Of course, many crackdowns on free speech are justified as an effort to avoid controversy or unrest. Thomas said that he was given no chance to contest the decision and that the mural was painted over ten minutes after he received a call from the school.

The case is a classic example of how school officials have become emboldened in acts of censorship and speech regulation. We have been discussing the alarming rise of speech limitations and sanctions imposed by school officials. We have seen a steady erosion of the free speech rights of students in the last decade. The Supreme Court accelerated that trend in its Morse decision. Former JDHS Principal Deb Morse suspended a student in 2002 during the Olympic Torch Relay for holding up a 14-foot banner across from the high school that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The case ultimately led to the Supreme Court which ruled in Morse v. Frederick ruling in 2007 for the Board — a decision that I strongly disagreed with and one that has encouraged over-reaching by school officials into protected areas.  Cheerleaders are expected to conform their free speech to accept positions or risk removal from their teams and even liking images on social media can get students suspended.

Fallon’s decision is a refreshing endorsement of the free speech rights of high school students. Fallon held:

The parties do not dispute that Tinker governs this case. The painting of President Trump cannot reasonably be described as obscene or plainly offensive on its face, nor can it be construed as school-sponsored speech. The Court concludes that N.T.’s portrait constitutes pure political speech under the fourth category. Accordingly, the school’s actions will be analyzed under the framework that student speech cannot be restricted on the basis of viewpoint “unless there is a showing of material and substantial disruption.”

N.T.’s painting, while it is certainly a stylized and colorful image, depicts the sitting President of the United States. This is not a case involving a symbol such as a Confederate flag, which has an established meaning as a “symbol of racism and intolerance, regardless of whatever other meanings may be associated with it.” A.M. ex rel. McAllum v. Cash, 585 F.3d 214, 224 (5th Cir. 2009). Moreover, the painting conforms with all Pine Sr. High School rules regarding senior parking spots. In fact, the student obtained the Principal’s approval before the parking spot was ever painted. Because the Washington Parish School Board opened its schools for student speech by enacting its “Senior Paint Your Parking Space” policy, the First Amendment requires that students be allowed to express their political views freely, absent any conflict with school guidelines. N.T. stated that he intended the painting to reflect his support for the President’s re-election campaign. Had N.T. worn a Trump lapel pin or displayed a Trump bumper sticker on his car, surely this would have amounted to political speech protected under the First Amendment. The Court sees no difference between those acts of expression and N.T.’s painting at issue here.

Bravo.

36 thoughts on “Tinkering With Free Speech: Federal Court Rules Against Louisiana High School After Painting Over Student’s Trump Mural”

  1. Refreshing to see a judge actually hold the Constitution has greater authority than dictates from school mini-tyrants.

    1. Must lament that these things end up in court. Refreshing to see one of the boneheads who make school systems what they are today get slapped down by a judge. The officiousness and the deceitful resorts to poses and pretext is just vomit inducing. . School administrators have to be the bourgeois occupational group most thoroughly shot through with people properly regarded with disdain. (Well, it’s a tough call between educational administrators at all levels, social workers, mental health tradesmen, and clergymen).

  2. The issue here is not a mural getting removed. That is the symptom of the disease. The disease is the movement in the country to pick and choose which rights guaranteed by the constitution that should be followed, leaving it to a democrat or republican judge to rule on and then SCOTUS. People in leadership positions, especially education, should have enough understanding of the constitution to know what is protected based on agreements between two parties.

    We witnessed the outcry from the same segment of the population trying to limit speech when the right to privacy was being attacked by those wanting access codes to cell phones.

    All rights are critical to a democracy, not just those that fit a political agenda.

  3. I mean, the student’s literally running over President Trump every time he parks his car. You’d think leftist minions of the mobmind would love that. But no, they no longer have either the capacity or the imagination to appreciate that.

    1. They are simple minded iconoclasts like the insane Red Guard of the PRC who in the 1960s dragged out centuries old skeletons of figures and smashed them to prove a stupid point about the historical lapse of feudalism. And proceeded to murder a million or more citizens of the PRC for thoughtcrime

      That’s where this country is headed if we allow the ANTIFA, BLM, and the cancel mob to keep on growing unchecked like a cancer on society

      https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/01/23/265228870/chinese-red-guards-apologize-reopening-a-dark-chapter

  4. Oh, I wonder what would have happened if the kid had painted BLM on the spot, or a picture of Obama, or Saint Trayvon Martin, or George Floyd??? Or how about the queer rainbow flag thingy???

    No, after thinking about it I don’t wonder at all.

    Never mind.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. Your thoughts occurred to me too. Usual double standard, of course the painting of those people would have been allowed–even encouraged.

  5. The school should lease parking space to park on. Not pee or poop on. Nor to write on. Those who write on itShay house walls should pay a price and be excluded.

  6. No more petty a tyrant than those ruling over children. Let the kid paint what he wants, you sold him the right. And does anyone really think Principal Skinner here isn’t motivated by TDS? Really ?

  7. While we’re at it, what gives with the school board and the superintendent intervening in these matters? Let the school board adopt a disciplinary manual and leave it at that. Have the superintendent work on budget, facilities planning, supervising the motor pool, and supervising performance and financial audits. Leave discipline to the principals and the deans of students.

  8. Multiple eye-rolls here.

    1. Students driving to school.
    2. Assigned parking spaces for students driving to school
    3. Gratuitous license to deface the macadam
    4. Officious twerp of a school administrator
    5. Federal courts clogged with trivia

    Here’s three pro-tips: with the exception of certain specialty clientele, allocate the provision of primary and secondary schooling to philanthropic corporations and households. The whole community could pay taxes to a county school fund topped off with a state appropriation distributed according to formulae. Parents wishing to send a child to a tuition-funded school could apply for a partial refund of their school taxes and pay that schools charges with whatever resources they had. Parents wishing to use voucher-funded schools could collect their voucher from the county school fund and hand it over to the school, which would turn it in to the fund for its redemption value; the school as a participant in the voucher program would be debarred from imposing further charges on its clients (formal or functional). Each school would have its own rules consistent with the state penal code and the state social welfare law. For students attended schools run by governments or state enterprises, the state could maintain a corps of mediators and arbitrators to assess disputes between provider and client over disciplinary matters, and we keep these finicky controversies out of court.

  9. Finally a court with some sense. I do like that the judge used the school’s rules against them. Now, they need to repaint the parking space.

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