When Liberty High School senior Addison Barnes wore his new T-shirt last January to his Friday morning, first-period “People and Politics” class, he knew he was making a statement, but he also was confident it fell within the Hillsboro, Oregon, school district’s standards for student speech – after all, it directly quoted the president of the United States.
Specifically, the words on the shirt read: “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.,” with “The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller” in quotes.
Barnes’ class was discussing the topic of immigration that morning.
“The T-shirt was just a representation of my political beliefs,” Barnes told KGW News.
The teen’s confidence was short-lived, however. During class, Assistant Principal Amanda Ryan-Fear came to the classroom and removed Barnes, directing him to cover the shirt because, she claimed, at least one other student and a teacher had said the shirt “offended” them.
Barnes complied and was sent back to class. But as he sat in his seat, thinking over what had just happened, he decided the assistant principal was wrong and had no right to order him to cover the shirt, so he uncovered it.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know this isn’t right, this is my First Amendment right to be able to wear this shirt,'” Barnes said.
Later in the period, Ryan-Fear returned to the classroom and observed Barnes and his shirt. She had him removed to her office by a security guard and threatened him with suspension for “defiance,” reiterating the claim others were “offended.” Given the choice to cover the shirt or be sent home for the day, Barnes went home.
It was not until the following Monday, when Barnes and his father met with Principal Greg Timmons, that the student learned his absence was being treated as a suspension and that the student and teacher who, it had been claimed, said they were “offended” now reportedly said they felt “threatened” by the shirt. While the one-day suspension was vacated, the teen was threatened with future suspensions if he wore the shirt to school again.
Barnes has abided by the school’s demand, but did wear the shirt briefly in April for an interview in a fellow student’s documentary on the First Amendment. When the student submitted the documentary, he was directed by the teacher and the administration to blur or obscure the T-shirt before his school project could be uploaded to the school’s online learning platform.
The school’s refusal to recognize Barnes’ First Amendment right to engage in “a silent, passive expression” on a political and social issue of the day, “unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance” by him resulted in the filing of a lawsuit Friday against the high school, the district and Principal Timmons.
The school is also accused of selectively deciding which “offensive” messages are permitted on campus. In the filing, it is noted that one of Barnes’ teachers prominently displayed a sign in the front of the classroom stating “Sanctuary City, Welcome Home,” a message – like that on the T-shirt – at the heart of the current debate on immigration.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment stating that the school violated Barnes First Amendment rights and a permanent injunction against the school enforcing its guidelines in a similar manner so the teen can again wear the shirt to school. Unspecified damages. court costs and attorney fees are also sought.
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Among the attorneys representing Barnes at the U.S. District Court in Portland is Oregon House Minority Leader Republican Michael McLane.
“The high school, ironically named Liberty High School, had violated his free-speech rights,” said McLane. “He was told he offended them but that’s a far cry from being disruptive, and it is certainly a far cry from violating school policy, let alone what is clearly First Amendment free-speech law.”
The Oregon chapter of the ACLU weighed in on Barnes’ behalf, although grudgingly:
“The school clearly crossed the line when it required a student to remove a T-shirt that voiced support for Donald Trump’s border wall or face a suspension, legal director Mat dos Santos told KGW. “This shirt is mean spirited, but it isn’t a ‘disturbance’ under First Amendment case law.
“It is disappointing that Liberty High School decided to censor the student instead of inviting the student body to discuss immigration, the freedom of speech, and the impacts of xenophobic rhetoric. Schools have a responsibility to teach our youth how to engage in thoughtful conversations about difficult and potentially offensive subject matters. Censorship doesn’t work and often just elevates the subject the government is trying to silence.”