First Amendment lawsuit says student was punished for wearing a T-shirt advocating gun rights

WEST VIRGINIA — Near the entrance of Logan Middle School is a statue called “The Doughboy” — a World War I soldier carrying a firearm in one hand, and in the other a grenade.

The bronze figure is indicative of West Virginia’s gun culture. As is the state flag — which features two firearms — and West Virginia University’s mascot, the musket-toting Mountaineer.

But when an eighth-grade Logan Middle School student refused to remove his National Rifle Association T-shirt because a teacher said it violated the dress code, he was suspended. In response, the student’s mother has filed a federal lawsuit against the Logan County Board of Education and 10 employees, arguing the punishment violated the student’s First Amendment rights.

“People just don’t take well to others that are from outside the area telling the community what’s appropriate and what’s not based upon thing that have happened in other areas,” said Benjamin White, the attorney who represents the student and his mother. “In West Virginia, firearms are a way of life.”

On April 18, 2013, student Jared Marcum, who was 14 at the time, wore a T-shirt with the NRA logo and a hunting rifle that said “PROTECT YOUR RIGHT.” While waiting in the lunch line at the school’s cafeteria, the school secretary said the shirt violated the school’s dress code and instructed Marcum to turn it inside out or face suspension, according to the complaint filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. When two other teachers agreed the shirt violated the dress code, he was escorted to the principal’s office.

At that point, the police had already been called, White said. With teachers and Marcum in the same room, White said the student kept speaking over teachers and administrators when they tried to tell police their side of the story. Because Marcum wouldn’t be quiet, police charged him with obstructing an officer. He also received a one-day out-of-school suspension.

Although a Logan County Circuit Court judge dropped the criminal charges on June 27, 2013, White said the suspension remains on his disciplinary record. On April 25, White received a letter from the school district that says Marcum was suspended because of his “inappropriate behavior with educators in authority,” not because of his T-shirt.

“This kid is a member of the NRA, he is passionate about his right to own firearms, and some person that has an opposite belief tells him to turn it inside out because it’s against a rule that doesn’t exist,” White said, adding that Marcum hopes to join the military following graduation. “The whole issue here is the teacher didn’t understand the rules.”

Had school officials reacted differently, White said, the whole situation could have been avoided.

“Should have the eighth grader kept trying to tell his side of the story?” White said. “No, but how does he know he’s going to be given a chance?”

Shana Thompson, the school board’s attorney, was not available for comment Friday. Requests to speak with school officials about the case were not granted.

According to the complaint, Marcum’s shirt complied with the school’s student/parent handbook, which prohibited clothing that displayed profanity, violence, discriminatory messages or sexually suggestive phrases. The policy also banned clothing that advertised alcohol, tobacco or drug products.

“Unless it says ‘bring this gun and kill somebody,’ then that I think would fall under the language, but it’s a Second Amendment ‘protect your rights’ [message] and it shows a hunting rifle,” White said. “I can’t imagine anybody believing this particular shirt would be against that policy.”

In 2004, a Virginia middle school student settled a similar lawsuit against the Albemarle County School Board after his principal required him to wear his “NRA Sports Shooting Camp” T-shirt inside out.

Along with removing the suspension from Marcum’s record, the lawsuit seeks $250,000 in punitive damages and $200,000 in damages for “embarrassment and humiliation, mental distress and for damages related to the indignities visited upon him.” White said he hopes the suit will also force an apology.

“I’m not saying my client is innocent, but he’s certainly not guilty of obstructing an officer, he’s not guilty of wearing a shirt that’s against the policy,” White said. “I guess he’s guilty of standing up for his freedom of speech and Second Amendment rights.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.