Student's Suit Challenges Suspension: Constitutionality of Zero-tolerence Policies at Stake

Newark, N.J. — A Washington, New Jersey high school student suspended for wearing a T-shirt with the word “redneck” on it asked a federal court today to protect his and other students’ First Amendment rights. The T-shirt lists comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “Top 10 Reasons You Might Be A Redneck Sports Fan.” Although neither the ten reasons nor the shirt’s graphics have any racial connotation, the school board publicly accused student Tom Sypniewski of “attempting to portray a message of racial stereotyping” in violation of its dress code. Sypniewski and his two brothers, who are co-plaintiffs, asked the court to declare the dress code and related harassment policy unconstitutional. The three are represented by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in Washington, DC and New York’s Rosenman & Colin.

“The courts have made it clear that schools can’t ban student speech merely because it might be vaguely offensive to someone. At very least, a school must show that the speech threatened to cause disruption,” explained Terry Pell, CIR’s Chief Executive Officer. “It’s hard to see what could be offensive about Tom’s shirt, much less disruptive,” Pell added. “Certainly no one had ever complained about it.”

Jeff Foxworthy commented on the case as well, noting that “redneck” defines “a glorious absence of sophistication” and is not intended to be offensive. Foxworthy said he “was absolutely amazed at the suspension of Tom for wearing [the] shirt.”

This case is expected to be closely watched, not only for its potential to shape the scope of free speech protection in schools, but also for its impact on the proliferation of zero tolerance policies at schools throughout the nation. “We are asking that the court step in, not only to protect the rights of these fine boys, but also as a civics lesson for all that free speech is at the heart of our nation’s democratic values,” said Gerald Walpin, a partner at Rosenman & Colin. Walpin pointed out that “schools are supposed to teach our children about democratic values. Yet here, the school board is teaching that a student can be punished for expressing an opinion or telling a joke that an administrator doesn’t like.”