CIR prevails in case challenging suspension of high school senior for wearing Jeff Foxworthy shirt, so-called zero tolerance policies at stake.
Thomas Sypniewski, a high-achieving senior at a Washington, N.J., public high school, prevailed in his several year fight for his First Amendment rights after being suspended in 2001 for wearing a t-shirt listing the “Top 10 Reasons You Might Be A Redneck Sports Fan.”
|FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: BRIAN, TOM, GERALD WALPIN, AND MATTHEW|
With the help of the Center for Individual Rights and New York law firm KMZRosenman, he and his brothers succeeded in getting the federal courts to declare the school’s dress code and harassment policy an unconstitutionally broad restriction on his speech.
- Read the Third Circuit decision striking down the offending portions of the school’s dress and speech codes
Was the “redneck sports fan” T-shirt racist or offensive?
Tom, who considers himself a redneck, had worn the shirt to school dozens of times before without complaint. View the text of the shirt and decide for yourself if his suspension was justified.
Local media quickly picked up the story, and soon everyone knew Tom had been suspended. Read an account from the March 23, 2001 edition of Newark’s Star-Ledger.
Tom appeals the decision and finds support in the press
With his family firmly behind him, Tom decided to appeal his suspension to the Warren Hills Regional School Board. The local Express-Times weighed in on his side with an outraged editorial.
The school board upholds his suspension
Although Tom had been confident that the Board would listen to reason, his appeal was denied.
Prominent NY attorney agrees to represent Tom with CIR
“[THE U.S. SUPREME] COURT MADE CLEAR THAT A SCHOOL’S POWER TO RESTRICT OTHERWISE PROTECTED SPEECH IS LIMITED TO SPEECH WHICH ‘WOULD SUBSTANTIALLY DISRUPT SCHOOL OPERATIONS,’ AND CREATES ‘A SPECIFIC AND SIGNIFICANT FEAR OF DISRUPTION, NOT JUST SOME REMOTE APPREHENSION OF DISTURBANCE.’ THE BOARD’S DRESS CODE IGNORES THESE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF ANY LAWFUL DRESS CODE AND IS THUS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.”
ATTORNEY GERALD WALPIN IN A MAY 29 LETTER TO THE SUPERINTENDENT
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. But 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.
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 whole-hearted 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.
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Read questions and answers about the case
See photos of the filing and the press conference