Three Wisconsin high school students are suing taking school administrators to court after they were told to cover up their shirts that had images of a gun on them.
Two of the students are sophomores at Kettle Moraine High School in Waukesha County, while a third student is a middle schooler in Neenah, Wisconsin. In the Kettle Moraine incident, it was the school’s principal who told the two students to cover up the shirts they had word to school as an an act of political speech.
One had the logo of WI Carry Inc. It features a handgun in a holster behind a belt that carries the organization’s name.
The other shirt featured the outline of an AR-15-style rifle above the words “Pew Professional.” The suit explains that “pew” refers to the sound of a gun being fired.
Principal Beth Kaminski, the only named defendant in the suit, told each student the shirts violated the school’s dress code and they must keep them covered with their jackets.
She emailed one of the boy’s mothers to say no clothing with guns is allowed and he shouldn’t wear any such clothing in the future.
As one of the boy’s mom’s points out, the members of the school’s trap shooting team regularly wear shirts showing clay targets exploding, and she says there’s nothing in the dress code that actually bans apparel that simply features a firearm, not a depiction of violence.
In the other case, an assistant principal told the middle school student to cover up the Smith & Wesson shirt he had worn to school.
His suit against Shattuck Middle School Associate Principal David Sonnabend says the boy target shoots and hunts, “believes in the value to society of personal possessions as guaranteed by the Second Amendment,” and owns several shirts that express those beliefs.
The Neenah Joint School District told a Green Bay TV station early last week it had not seen the lawsuit yet.
“While the district has addressed at least one shirt with inappropriate language, the district is unaware of any student being required to change a shirt depicting a firearm and advocating gun ownership,” the statement read.
For now, the superintendent of the Kettle Morain school district is sounding defiant.
In a message to parents last week, Kettle Moraine School District Superintendent Pat Deklotz said the district wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but courts have recognized “legitimate pedagogical concerns in preventing violence” in schools.
“Wearing shirts with images of weapons is not an issue of free speech and it can be respectfully regulated by the district,” Deklotz wrote in the statement.
Deklotz needs some better legal advice, honestly. Wisconsin Carry, Inc., which is supporting all three of these lawsuits, pointed out that back in 2018 a similar case was settled in the state after the principal of Markesan High School tried to tell a kid his pro-Second Amendment shirt wasn’t allowed. A lawsuit was filed (also supported by Wisconsin Carry, Inc.), and a judge granted a preliminary injunction against the school’s policy, ruling that the student’s First Amendment argument was likely to succeed at trial.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman said in his decision that “Even short deprivations of First Amendment rights constitute irreparable harm,” and he’s right.
None of the shirts in question promote violence or illegal activity. Instead, they promote organizations working to secure the exercise of a constitutionally protected right, the arms that are protected by the Second Amendment, and the exercise of the right itself. As such, all of the shirts are pretty clearly protected speech.
It’s not uncommon for school administrators to tell students they can’t wear Second Amendment-related apparel to school, but it’s exceedingly rare for those administrative actions to find favor in the court system. From Nevada to Indiana (and plenty of other states in between), courts have routinely found that the mere image of a firearm is not speech that can be prohibited in school, and that schools are violating the First Amendment rights of students with their bans on gun-related shirts.
Superintendent Deklotz may be in charge of the Kettle Moraine School District, but I have a feeling he’s the one who’s going to be getting an education in First Amendment case law courtesy of the sophomores suing him for infringing on their freedom of speech.