School Climate & Safety

Court Blocks School Ban On Weapons Images

By Michelle Galley — January 07, 2004 3 min read
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A Virginia middle school’s prohibition on clothing depicting images of weapons is likely unconstitutionally vague and overly broad, a federal appeals court has ruled in a case backed by the National Rifle Association.

Alan Newsom, 13, displays the National Rifle Association T-shirt that was barred by administrators at his Virginia middle school.

Alan Newsom, 13, displays the National Rifle Association T-shirt that was barred by administrators at his Virginia middle school.
—Photograph courtesy of Fred Newsom

The dress code of Jack Jouett Middle School in the 12,000-student Albemarle County district was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Alan Newsom, a 13-year-old middle school student who said school officials asked him to remove a NRA T-shirt depicting images of three people with guns and the words “Sports Shooting Camp.”

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled in the boy’s favor last month, saying the dress code’s ban on weapons depictions covers too many symbols that are constitutionally protected, even in public schools. The court ordered a federal district court judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the policy.

The school district has filed an appeal to the full, 12-member court of appeals.

According to court documents, the boy was wearing the NRA shirt to school in Charlottesville, Va., on April 29, 2002, when Elizabeth Pitt, an assistant principal, saw it and “had the immediate impression that the figures on the shirt were ‘sharpshooters,’ which reminded her of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.” She asked Alan to take the shirt off or turn it inside out.

Alan, who regularly practices target shooting, filed the lawsuit with the help of his father and lawyers from the NRA, based in Fairfax, Va.

“My son was upset because he is very proud of the sport he participates in,” said the father, Fred Newsom. “He was belittled in front of his school, and his sport was singled out for ridicule.”

When the boy wore the NRA shirt, Jouett Middle School did not have a policy specifically prohibiting students from wearing clothing depicting images of weapons. In the summer of 2002, the student handbook was revised to prohibit students from wearing messages “that relate to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, weapons, violence, sex, vulgarity, or that reflect adversely upon persons because of their race or ethnic group.”

“They tried to pass a rule after the fact to justify their actions,” contended Daniel M. Zavadil, the assistant general counsel for the 4.2 million-member NRA. “To say that our logo is bad is just absurd. We’re teaching gun safety and gun education.”

According to court documents, school officials argued that the images of weapons on the boy’s shirt “conflicted with the message that ‘Guns and Schools Don’t Mix’.”

Spears and Muskets

The 4th Circuit court, in its ruling Dec. 1, noted that there was no evidence that any clothing including images of weapons had ever disrupted the school. Under the school’s policy, students would not be able to wear clothing depicting the state seal of Virginia, which includes a picture of a woman holding a spear standing over the body of a “vanquished tyrant,” the unanimous opinion said.

“The symbol obviously depicts a woman holding a weapon,” U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Clyde H. Hamilton wrote in the opinion. He also noted that the mascot of Albemarle County High School, across the street from the middle school, is a “patriot armed with a musket,” which would also be prohibited under the policy.

Banning support for groups with weapons in their insignia “can hardly be deemed reasonably related to the maintenance of a safe or distraction-free school,” Judge Hamilton said.

Cathy Eberly, a spokeswoman for the Albemarle County district, said the school board there believes “that the administration at Jack Jouett Middle School acted appropriately in allowing the student to remove the shirt because of the violent images displayed.”

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