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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Seventh Circuit Remands Case Relating to Right to Bear Arms T-Shirts in Schools

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an interesting opinion on students right to free speech in the context of school clothing. N.J. v. Sonnabend.

Two middle school students sued their Wisconsin school districts after they were barred from wearing t-shirts with messages in support of the right to bear arms. One t-shirt displayed a Smith &  Wesson logo with an image of a revolver. The other t-shirt displayed the logo of the Wisconsin Carry, Inc., a gun rights group, and an image of a handgun. The students sued their respective school administrators in separate lawsuits alleging violations of their free speech rights under the First Amendment. The cases were consolidated and the district court ruled in favor of the school administrators2, finding the administrators' actions to be viewpoint neutral and reasonable. The students appealed to the Seventh Circuit. 

The Court of Appeals first determined that one of the students' case was "moot" because the student had graduated from middle school and was now in high school. 

With respect to the other student's challenge, the Court first determined that the student's actions implicated the student's free speech rights since the t-shirt conveyed an expression of political speech (a favorable opinion of firearms and support for the right to bear them). However, the Court acknowledged that a school can justify restrictions on speech activities if the school can show that the speech "would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school" or invade the rights of others. That standard was established in a previous U.S. Supreme Court case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Comm. Sch. Dist, involving a First Amendment challenge to school policies that prohibited students from wearing black armbands to express opposition to the Vietnam War. Because the district court did not apply the Tinker standard in this case, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the district court to conduct that analysis. 


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