PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – A high school senior is free to wear the T-shirt that got him suspended while his lawsuit alleging violation of his free speech rights proceeds, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Addison Barnes, a senior at Liberty High School in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, sued the school and Principal Greg Timmons on May 18, claiming they suspended him for one day for wearing a shirt printed with the words “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” and “The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller.”
Barnes says he wore the shirt to his first period “People and Politics” where his teacher had previously announced that the discussion topic would be immigration. During class, Liberty Assistant Principal Amanda Ryan-Fear allegedly removed Barnes from the room and told him to cover his shirt because the teacher and another student had told her the shirt “offended” them.
Liberty’s student body is one-third Hispanic, and has had a recent student walkout and a sit-in with 200 students – both over immigration.
Barnes says he covered his shirt and returned to class. But he uncovered it again a few minutes later, and when Ryan-Fear saw that she had a security guard take him out of class and bring him to her office. Barnes says he was motivated by his belief in his First Amendment rights, but Ryan-Fear allegedly threatened him with suspension for “defiance,” according to court records. Barnes says school officials told him he could either cover the shirt again or go home. He went home, and the school counted that absence as a suspension, Barnes says.
On Tuesday, Chief District Judge Michael W. Mosman signaled sympathy with Barnes’ claims. Mosman issued a temporary restraining order allowing Barnes to wear his Trump shirt for the rest of the school year – which for a senior means about five more days.
Ruling from the bench, Mosman said his task in the case would be to balance the right to “core political speech” with the effect of the speech on the listener – and determine whether the school was justified in fearing that the political speech on Barnes’ shirt could incite violence or “substantial disruption” from students who read and reacted to the shirt.
At this early stage in the proceedings, Mosman said, there is not yet enough evidence in the record to flesh out the claims of either side.
“If you look at the factors at play here, they end up in a tie – the interest in encouraging constitutional speech and the interest in running an orderly school – and it’s hard to say that one or the other is stronger,” Mosman said.
But preventing Barnes from wearing his shirt for the last few days of his high school career – if the case eventually showed that that represented an unconstitutional infringement of Barnes’ first amendment rights – would be subjecting Barnes to irreparable harm, Mosman found.
“All the cases I’m aware of say that if a person is prevented from speaking for even one day and that turns out to be wrong, that’s irreparable harm,” Mosman said.