Minn. middle school student's suit alleges censorship of pro-life T-shirts

MINNESOTA — A mother in Minnesota filed a lawsuit against Hutchinson Middle School Tuesday arguing the administration violated her 12-year-old son’s First Amendment rights by directing him to refrain from wearing T-shirts bearing anti-abortion messages.

The student, referred to as K.B. in the complaint, chose to wear T-shirts with pro-life messages on them each day in April — April 29 is “National Pro-Life T-shirt Day.” School officials told the student that he could not wear the shirts because they were inappropriate and “that it could be considered offensive,” according to the lawsuit.

“The school claimed it was inappropriate and one teacher said the T-shirts annoyed her,” said Brian Rooney, spokesman for the Thomas More Law Center, which is representing the student.

“They allow students to practice their First Amendment rights as long as it’s not disruptive to the learning process and as long as it’s not lewd, vulgar, obscene or profane,” Rooney said. “According to the Supreme Court and many circuit courts, you can’t bootstrap that into [banning] unpopular or unpleasant viewpoints.”

In 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that schools cannot censor student speech unless there is a reasonable forecast of “material and substantial disruption” to the school or unless the speech will invade the rights of others.

Hutchinson Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden said the school is currently seeking counsel and conducting an internal investigation into the matter. VanderHeiden said he hasn’t had the opportunity to speak with the teachers involved in the matter — he received the summons Wednesday afternoon — but said he is generally aware of the underlying situation. He said a message’s offensiveness is generally left to the discretion of school officials.

“That is determined by the situation or the age of the students involved,” VanderHeiden said. “The threshold is different depending on the age and the appropriateness of the message.”

The child’s mother, Jeanne Ibbitson, said her son was repeatedly punished because of the content and unpopular viewpoint of his T-shirts, according to court documents. On April 1, K.B. began wearing the pro-life T-shirts to school and was not reprimanded. Then on April 2, a teacher at school told K.B. his shirts were inappropriate and possibly offensive. On April 4, he was sent to the principal’s office because his teacher said the message was “inappropriate for this class.” K.B. was reprimanded for his shirt at least eight more times that month, including April 29, the day he had previously been told he would be permitted to wear the shirt without discipline.

“Just because this is a different type of issue because of what the message is doesn’t mean you can limit it to one day,” Rooney said. “[You can’t] say that it’s allowed for one day but not the other 364 days of the year.”

School district policy specifically states that schools are not to “abridge the rights of students to express political, religious, philosophical, or similar opinions by wearing apparel on which messages are stated.” It goes on to say that as long as these messages are not lewd, vulgar, obscene or profane they are acceptable.

“In general, the policy is we allow [slogans on t-shirts] as long as it doesn’t interrupt or disrupt the educational process,” VanderHeiden said. “It’s not necessarily the message, but if it’s offensive or if it disrupts the [educational] process.”

Ibbitson said Principal Todd Grina told her during a phone conversation in mid-April that the shirts were forbidden because they had become a distraction and “some of the kids were starting to ask questions,” according to court documents.

Grina then told Ibbitson, “I am not going to give [K.B.] detention or suspend him or anything like that, I am going to ask him to cover it up or turn it inside out,” according to court documents. On April 25, Grina threatened K.B. with in-school suspension if he continued to wear the T-shirts. On National Pro-Life T-shirt Day, K.B. said several teachers expressed their displeasure with him and the message his shirts conveyed, according to court documents.

K.B. had three different shirts, all from the American Life League. On the front, one had the words, “Abortion — Growing, Growing, Gone,” another said “What part of abortion don’t you understand?” and the third said “Never Known, Not Forgotten.” On the back, all three had the inscription “47,000,000 babies aborted 1973-2008.”

Rooney said some people have doubts about whether this is a deeply held belief by the student.

“A sixth grader knows in his view that killing can be right or wrong,” Rooney said. “And if he believes that because of his religious principles, or human principles for that matter, that killing an unborn child is wrong, well, you don’t have to be older than a sixth grader to make that decision.”

By Jimmie Collins, SPLC staff writer