Law & Courts

Law Update

October 16, 2002 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Court: Foxworthy Shirt Is First Amendment-Worthy

Who knew there were self-proclaimed rednecks in New Jersey?

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Warren Hills, N.J., school district cannot use its policy against racial harassment to bar students from wearing a T-shirt featuring the “redneck” humor of the comedian Jeff Foxworthy. At issue was a shirt featuring “reasons you might be a Redneck Sports Fan.”

Among the suggestions from Mr. Foxworthy, who once had his own network television series, were: “There’s a roll of duct tape in your golf bag,” and “Your carpet used to be part of a football field.”

Thomas Sypniewski, then a senior, wore the T-shirt to Warren Hills Regional High School last year and was suspended for three days. The suspension led to a lawsuit and a lengthy dissection by a three- judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia.

Central to the court’s analysis was not simply the humor of Mr. Foxworthy, which it saw as relatively harmless, but the fact that Warren Hills High had experienced several racial incidents involving students wearing Confederate flag shirts and a student gang that referred to itself as “the Hicks” and held “white-power Wednesdays.”

Mr. Sypniewski, who has since graduated from the school, denied being a member of the Hicks but acknowledged wearing clothing with a Confederate theme, including a T-shirt with the word “redneck” incorporating the Confederate battle flag.

In March 2001, the school board of the 2,100-student district adopted a policy against racial harassment that included a ban on Confederate symbols. Soon after the board’s new policy went into effect, Mr. Sypniewski wore the Jeff Foxworthy shirt, which came from a local Wal-Mart. He was suspended after refusing school administrators’ orders to turn it inside out.

A younger brother, Brian, wore an identical shirt to his middle school and was not disciplined.

After the school board upheld Thomas Sypniewski’s suspension, the family sued the school district in federal district court in Trenton, N.J. They claimed the racial- harassment policy violated the First Amendment rights of free speech of all three of their sons, including Brian Sypniewski’s twin brother, Matthew, who likewise owned a Foxworthy shirt. The district court refused to issue an injunction barring enforcement of the policy.

But in an Oct. 3 decision, the court of appeals panel voted 2-1 to reverse that ruling.

Although the high school had experienced racial incidents, and the word “redneck” had some association with the Hicks, the court held that the word could not be equated with racial harassment. The majority said that the Jeff Foxworthy shirt was “harmless on its face” and had caused no disruption when Thomas Sypniewski wore it to the high school.

“The wearing of the Foxworthy T-shirt ... might be seen as a veiled celebration of bigotry,” the majority said. “But there is no evidence that ‘redneck’ had or has such a meaning in the Warren Hills schools.”

The court also struck down a portion of the district’s harassment policy barring the display of material that may create “ill will,” saying such language was unconstitutionally overbroad.

Writing in dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Max Rosenn said he would have allowed the district to prohibit “redneck” T-shirts.

“There is substantial evidence that . . . T-shirts, whether depicting the Confederate flag or ‘redneck,’ were symbols of racial intolerance and divisiveness to the students and faculty,” he wrote.

Violent Letters

In another recent ruling on student expression, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, upheld the expulsion of a student who wrote letters threatening violence against his ex-girlfriend, even though the boy never delivered them.

Students identified in court papers as J.M. and his girlfriend, K.G., were going steady during 7th grade at Northwood Junior High School in the 18,300-student Pulaski County, Ark., district. During the summer after that school year, K.G. broke off the relationship.

J.M. then wrote two obscenity-laced letters in which he discussed his wish to sodomize, rape, and kill K.G. One letter includes a warning that K.G. should not go to sleep because J.M. would be lying under her bed waiting to kill her with a knife, according to court papers.

The boy did not deliver the letters to his ex-girlfriend. Shortly before his 8th grade year began in fall 2000, one of his friends found one letter on top of J.M.'s dresser. J.M snatched it away, but then let his friend read it. J.M. also discussed the letter with his ex- girlfriend in a telephone conversation. His friend later took the letter without J.M.'s knowledge and gave it to K.G. She was upset, and when school officials learned about it, they expelled J.M. for the rest of the school year.

J.M.'s mother sued in federal district court, and a federal judge ruled in 2000 that the letter was not a true threat of violence because J.M. had prepared it at home and did not intend to deliver it. The court ordered J.M. reinstated with all rights and privileges.

But in a Sept. 25 opinion, the full 8th Circuit court ruled 6-4 in favor of the school district, which includes most of the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark. The majority concluded that J.M. had “intended to communicate the letter and is therefore accountable if a reasonable recipient would have viewed the letter as a threat.”

The court noted J.M.'s testimony that he knew there was a good chance his friend would tell K.G. about the letter. Based on his willingness to let his friend read the letter and his own discussion of the letter with K.G., J.M. could hardly say he “intended to keep the letter, and the message it contained, within his own lockbox of personal privacy,” the majority said.

The dissenters said that the letters apparently sat on J.M.'s dresser for weeks or months after he wrote them before his friend discovered one.

“It was a private response to his breakup,” said the dissent by U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald W. Heaney. “J.M. never intended anyone to see his letter.”

—Mark Walsh

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Title IX Rule to Protect LGBTQ+ Students Temporarily Blocked in 4 States
A federal judge in Louisiana delivered the first legal blow to the Biden administration's interpretation of Title IX.
4 min read
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican states are filing a barrage of legal challenges against the Biden administration's newly expanded campus sexual assault rules, saying they overstep the president's authority and undermine the Title IX anti-discrimination law.
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and health care stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican states have filed a barrage of legal challenges against the Biden administration's new Title IX rule, and one of them has just resulted in a temporary order blocking the rule in four states.
Patrick Orsagos/AP
Law & Courts Judge Strikes Down Title IX Guidance on LGBTQ+ Students. Here's Why It Matters
In a June 11 ruling, Texas judge said the Education Department has no authority to expand protections under Title IX.
8 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017. His office sued the Biden administration in an attempt to invalidate guidance it released in June 2021 stating it would interpret Title IX to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Law & Courts Court Backs School That Barred Student's 'Two Genders' Shirt
The court said the shirt could be understood to demean transgender and gender-nonconforming students, and administrators could prohibit it.
5 min read
ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman, left, and Liam Morrison speak at a press conference following oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit on Feb. 8, 2024.
David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, left, and middle school student Liam Morrison speak to reporters following oral arguments over Morrison's "There Are Only Two Genders" T-shirt before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston on Feb. 8, 2024.
Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom
Law & Courts Federal Judge Overturns New Hampshire Law on Teaching 'Divisive Concepts'
The judge holds that the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not make clear to educators what topics they may not teach.
4 min read
Students walk into the front doors at Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., on the first day of school on Aug. 30, 2022.
Students walk into Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., in August 2022. A federal judge has struck down a New Hampshire law that bars the teaching of "divisive concepts" to K-12 students.
Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP