Case Status: Victory. Plaintiff's motion to dismiss remaining claims was granted.

Sypniewski v. Warren Hills R.S.D.

  • Federal District Courts

High school senior suspended for Jeff Foxworthy t-shirt

In 2001, CIR working together with New York law firm KMZRosenman filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Thomas Sypniewski, a high-achieving senior at a Washington, N.J., public high school, after he was suspended for wearing a Jeff Foxworthy t-shirt listing the “Top 10 Reasons You Might Be A Redneck Sports Fan.”

Tom had worn the shirt to school dozens of times before without complaint, but on March 22, 2001, a school security guard saw Tom’s t-shirt and instructed him to go to the principal’s office. The school’s vice principal decided that Tom’s t-shirt was “offensive” and that it violated Warren Hills’ policy on racial harassment simply because it included the word “redneck.”

Tom was given a choice to remove his shirt or face suspension. Tom politely declined to remove it. He believed that his shirt was did not violate the school’s dress code or racial harassment policy. Because he refused to turn his shirt inside out, Tom was suspended for three days. Local media quickly picked up the story, and soon everyone knew Tom had been suspended.

With his family firmly behind him, Tom appealed his suspension to the Warren Hills Regional School Board. Although Tom had been confident that the Board would listen to reason, his appeal was denied.

After making its ruling, the board issued a press release by fax to local media outlets at the same time that it sent its formal decision to the Sypniewski family by U.S. mail. As a result, the Sypniewski’s first heard about the school board’s decision when a local reporter contacted the family for a comment. The impression was created that Tom had been involved in a racist incident. The local Express-Times weighed in on Tom’s side with an outraged editorial.

A lawsuit is filed in a federal courthouse in New Jersey

The Sypniewski family brought in Gerald Walpin of the law firm KMZRosenman and the Center for Individual Rights to protect Tom’s rights. In a letter to the superintendent, Walpin explained why the school board’s policies were unconstitutional and requested an apology and the dismissal of his suspension.

Walpin cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tinker v. DesMoines, which limited constrained the power of schools to prohibit student speech, declaring, “the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible.” Walpin explained that the overbroad language of the board’s policies prohibited speech that posed no realistic threat of interference and thus violated the First Amendment.

The letter yielded only an evasive reply stating that Tom’s injuries were his own fault. Walpin later met with the school board, but they refused to rescind Tom’s suspension.

Prior to filing a complaint, Curt Levey of the Center for Individual Rights alerted comedian Jeff Foxworthy to the fuss. Foxworthy was amazed; he said that “redneck” signifies only “a glorious absence of sophistication” and offered his wholehearted support to Tom.

Having exhausted all other options, Tom and his brothers, Brian and Matthew, decided to sue the Warren Hills Regional Board of Education. Classmates, family, and their attorneys accompanied them to the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J. and answered questions from the media.

Early in the case, the district court denied CIR’s motion for preliminary injunction, which asked the court to prohibit the Warren Hills from enforcing its racial harassment and dress code policies against Tom for the duration of the trial. CIR appealed the decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Third Circuit declared that Sypniewski’s challenge to Warren Hills’ dress code and harassment policy was likely to succeed on the merits. The court issued a preliminary injunction, and Warren Hills promptly changed its rules to remove the offending language. Sypniewski voluntarily dismissed the remainder of his claims because he had since graduated and therefore no longer faced the threat of punishment from the school.

Updates on this case

Photos from the Newark press conference

Aug 2005

Photos from the Newark press conference

Click on images for a larger view NY attorney Gerald Walpin poses with the brothers. Tom tells the press the…

In the News

Freedom to a T!

Shirt doesn’t hold a thread of hate. Board needs to get back to business. By the editors Express-Times, April 2, 2001 The Warren Hills Regional School Board will set aside students’ academic achievement, discipline, the…

2 students ousted for offensive T-shirts

Warren Hills moves to confront racism By Jeff Diamant and Susan Todd Star-Ledger, March 23, 2001 Officials at Warren Hills Regional High School suspended two students this week for wearing T-shirts with words or symbols…