Judge: School did not violate student's free speech rights with punishment for phrase

WEST VIRGINIA — A federal judge ruled that Huntington HighSchool administrators in Huntington, W.Va., were justified in suspending astudent for writing a controversial phrase on his hand.

Huntington High School student Anthony Joseph Brown wrote the phrase “FreeA-Train” on his hand with a marker, which was meant to be a statement of supportfor Anthony “A-Train” Jennings, a former Huntington student who faces charges ofshooting a police officer. Brown was asked by administrators to remove thephrase from his hand. He removed it, re-wrote it later in the day and was thengiven a 10-day suspension.

Principal Greg Webb testified that Jennings is the known leader of a gang — the Black East Thugs (BET) — and that members of the gang who wore”Free A-Train” t-shirts to school were asked to turn the shirts inside out.Brown said he is not a member of BET and wrote the phrase on his hand to showsupport for Jennings.

“The phrase had been causing a disruption in my school and interfering withthe educational process,” Webb said. He added that he does not believe this isan issue of censorship.

Webb also testified that members of BET beat-up a new student from NewJersey off-campus last month. In an interview, he said the phrase had become aserious disruption to the school community, which is why it was banned fromschool grounds.

“When a phrase or comments start having kids not want to participate inclass, when it starts interrupting the teacher from doing their daily job …when you have parents that are holding their kids out of school in fear fortheir safety because of these strong comments and the fear that these people arepart of this gang, then we’re going to take steps to ensure the safety of everykid and ensure that every kid has the right to come to school and get theireducation and not be in fear,” Webb said.

Federal Judge Robert C. Chambers said the school had the right to removeBrown from school for his actions because of the substantial disruption causedby the phrase.

“The message on his hand, however, clearly fell within the school’s ban ofthe ‘Free A-Train’ slogan and came at a time when administrators reasonablybelieved students were worried about gang activity and support for AnthonyJennings,” Chambers wrote.