Federal court says NJ school can't ban redneck T-shirt

Washington, D.C. – Two Washington, New Jersey high school students challenging their school’s ban on a T-shirt displaying the word “redneck” won a major free speech victory yesterday in federal appeals court. The T-shirt lists nationally recognized comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “Top 10 Reasons You Might Be A Redneck Sports Fan.” The appeals court held that the Warren Hills school district cannot interfere with students’ First Amendment right to wear the shirt.

The lawsuit began after Tom Sypniewski, the students’ older brother, was suspended in March, 2001 – pursuant to Warren Hills Regional High School’s dress code and racial harassment policy – for wearing the T-shirt to school. The dress code prohibits, among other things, clothing “portraying racial, ethnic, or religious stereotyping.” The racial harassment policy prohibits students from wearing clothing that is “racially divisive or creates ill will or hatred.” The school board justified Tom’s suspension and a ban on the T-shirt based on the vice principal’s belief that “redneck” is “offensive” to minority students. The vice principal claimed “redneck” is slang for a “violent, bigoted person.” Commenting on the incident, Jeff Foxworthy said he “was absolutely amazed at the suspension of Tom for wearing [the] shirt,” while noting that “redneck” defines “a glorious absence of sophistication.”

Tom and his brothers, who were also subject to the school’s policies, filed suit, asking a federal district court to declare the dress code and the racial harassment policy unconstitutional. The Sypniewski brothers argued that the policies violate the First Amendment, both facially and as applied to the T-shirt. While holding that the relevant portion of the dress code did not satisfy the constitutional standard, the district court upheld the racial harassment policy – after interpreting it narrowly – and concluded that it can be used to ban the “redneck” T-shirt. The Sypniewskis appealed.

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the district court and ruled in favor of the Sypniewskis. The appeals court concluded, on First Amendment grounds, that “The District Court erred in denying the preliminary injunction sought against enforcement of the racial harassment policy to prohibit the wearing of the Foxworthy T-shirt.” Key to the Third Circuit’s decision was its finding that the school failed to establish “that the shirt might genuinely threaten disruption or, indeed, that it violated any of the particular provisions of the harassment policy (excepting, perhaps, the ‘ill will’ provision).” The court ruled that the “ill will” provision was too broad to be constitutional and “must be stricken from the policy.”

The Third Circuit emphasized that, under Supreme Court precedent, “students should not be prevented from engaging in nondisruptive speech.” The court found that “the history of the Sypniewskis wearing the T-shirt speaks strongly against a finding of likelihood of disruption.” Even if someone found “redneck” offensive – which was not the case – “mere offensiveness does not qualify as ‘disruptive’ speech,” the court said.

The students are represented by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in Washington, D.C. and New York’s Katten Muchin Zavis Rosenman. “We are gratified by the court’s decision, not only because it protects the rights of these fine boys, but also because it provides a civics lesson for all that free speech is at the heart of our nation’s democratic values,” said Gerald Walpin, a partner at the New York firm and a CIR director. Walpin argued the case before the Third Circuit.

Tom Sypniewski said that “I am very happy that the court recognized my right to wear the Jeff Foxworthy T-shirt. I have always understood the need for schools to prevent disruption, but, as the court said, that T-shirt never caused any disruption and there was no risk that it would. This decision is a great lesson for me and for all young people that the American justice system truly protects the rights of every individual.”

Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education has been 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. “The Third Circuit’s ruling makes it clear that schools can’t ban student speech merely because it might be vaguely offensive to someone,” explained Terry Pell, CIR’s Chief Executive Officer. “At the very least, a school must show that the speech threatened to cause disruption. But in this case, no one even complained about Tom’s shirt before the day he was suspended.”