JOHNSTON, Iowa — The Johnston Community School District is facing a lawsuit from a student who was kicked out of class and suspended, for wearing a shirt depicting a rifle and a quote from the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, lists the plaintiff as A.B., by her next friend Janet Bristow. Bristow is the mother of the minor student who wore the shirt to school on September 1, 2022.
According to the complaint, A.B. wore the shirt two days after a discussion on students’ free speech rights in her high-school government class. During that class, A.B. alleged teacher Tom Griffin told students their rights to free speech were “extremely limited” while on school property. He also reportedly told students he would decide what speech was acceptable in the classroom, and wouldn’t allow students to wear clothing that depicts guns, alcohol, or other “inappropriate material.”
The complaint said A.B. knew Griffin was wrong about the scope of the First Amendment and that’s why she wore the shirt, which said “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ do you not understand?” A depiction of a rifle is below the text on the shirt.
A.B. was removed from the classroom and sent to the school administration office after Griffin claimed the shirt was a violation of the school’s dress code.
A.B. called her mother, who came to the school. Both spoke with administrators and they would not allow A.B. to return to class unless she changed her shirt. After refusing, A.B. was suspended.
After A.B.’s mother e-mailed the Johnston School Board, she received a phone call from Johnston Community School District Superintendent Laura Kacer apologizing that night. She also received an e-mail from one of the administrators apologizing that he “now recognize[s] that this is considered political speech.”
School officials were asked, by A.B.’s mother, to have Griffin apologize to A.B. and address the situation in his class by informing students that he was wrong about claiming the shirt was not protected speech. The complaint claims Griffin has refused to do so, as of the date of the lawsuit filing.
The suit claims A.B.’s freedom of speech was violated when she was suspended based on her clothing. It cites the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Named defendants in the case are teacher Thomas Griffin, associate principal Nate Zittergruen, associate principal Randy Klein, principal Ryan Woods, school leadership director Chris Billings, and the Johnston Community School District.