(answers can be attributed to Gerald Walpin, a partner at KMZ Rosenman in New York)
Q: What is this lawsuit about?
A: Tom Sypniewski, Jr., a senior at Warren Hills Regional High School in Washington, NJ until his recent graduation, is suing high school officials and the Warren Hills school board for violation of his right to free speech and for defamation, among other causes of action. The suit is a result of the 3-day suspension and other disciplinary measures Tom received for wearing a T-shirt that listed comedian “Jeff Foxworthy’s Top 10 Reasons You Might Be A Redneck Sports Fan.” On appeal, the school board upheld Tom’s punishment and distributed a defamatory press release which accused him of “attempting to portray a message of racial stereotyping.” Tom’s brothers Brian and Matthew, students at the Warren Hills Middle School and High School respectively, are co-plaintiffs in the suit, because they wear their own Jeff Foxworthy “redneck” T-shirts and fear they will be subject to similar violations of their rights.
Q: Who objected to Tom’s shirt?
A: Although no student or school official had ever previously objected to Tom wearing the “redneck” T-shirt, Vice Principal Ronald Griffith concluded that the shirt was “offensive” when Tom wore it on March 22, 2001. Griffith suspended Tom, claiming the shirt violated the school board’s Dress Code because of alleged racial connotations associated with the word “redneck.” Griffith opined that “redneck” is slang for a violent, bigoted person.
Q: Was there anything racially offensive on Tom’s T-shirt?
A: Nothing on the shirt had anything to do with race. In addition to the aforementioned caption, the T-shirt contained the following 10 “reasons”: “You’ve ever been shirtless at a freezing football game,” “Your carpet used to be part of a football field,” “Your basketball hoop used to be a fishing net,” “There’s a roll of duct tape in your golf bag,” “You know the Hooter’s menu by heart,” “Your mama is banned from the front row at wrestling matches,” “Your bowling team has its own fight song,” “You think the ‘Bud Bowl’ is real,” “You wear a baseball cap to bed,” and “You’ve ever told your bookie ‘I was just kidding.'”
Q: What does the Dress Code and related Harassment Policy prohibit?
A: The relevant part of the Code bans “inappropriate dress [that] causes disruption in the classroom . . . . The following is considered inappropriate . . . Clothing displaying or imprinted with nudity, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, double entendre pictures or slogans . . ., or portraying racial, ethnic, or religious stereotyping.” No disruption is alleged in Tom’s case. Tom and his brothers are also challenging the school board’s Harassment Policy, under which students and employees may not “wear or have in their possession any written material . . . that is racially divisive or creates ill will or hatred.” The board’s press release suggests that the Policy played a role in Tom’s suspension. While Tom and his brothers support the goal of eliminating racial divisions, they are challenging the dress and harassment codes because the policies lack clear standards and prohibit some types of constitutionally protected expression.
Q: What are Tom and his brothers asking the court to do?
A: 1) declare that, under the First Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution, the “redneck” T-shirt is protected speech and the Dress Code and Harassment Policy are unconstitutional; 2) prohibit enforcement of the Dress Code and Harassment Policy as currently written, including application of those policies to the “redneck” T-shirt; 3) require the school to rescind Tom’s suspension and remove any mention of it from his file; and 4) award compensatory and punitive damages for defamation and the violation of Tom’s right to free speech.