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Morgan Hill Student Free Speech Rights Case Fits Tinker to a T

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Four high school students from Morgan Hill, Calif. lost a federal lawsuit this week over American flag T-shirts. The students claimed that school administrators violated their free speech rights by asking them to change clothes or take excused leave from class after they wore American flag T-shirts to school on Cinco de Mayo.

The plaintiffs argued that their First Amendment rights were suppressed and that they were denied equal protection because they were treated differently than students wearing Mexican flags and colors the same day.

The well known Tinker v. Des Moines permits school administrators to restrict students' free speech rights when that free speech is likely to cause substantial disruption. Here, school officials offered evidence that the students' attire was causing a disturbance on the day in question, and that they were concerned for the flag-donning students' safety based on a flag-motivated altercation from the previous year.

The district court sided with the school in the dispute, finding that administrators had demonstrated a non-discriminatory purpose for asking the students to remove their American-flag apparel. While they may have been treated differently than students wearing Mexican-flag apparel that day, the court noted that the students wearing Mexican flags had not been targeted for violence.

One point worth noting in this case is that the named plaintiff, M.D., was permitted to return to class without changing his shirt; his mother later removed him from class for the remainder for the day. The school argued that M.D. had not suffered an injury. We agree.

None of the students were threatened with suspension. Those who were asked to turn their shirts inside-out or go home for the rest of the day were told that they would receive excused absences if they left.

What do you think? Should the plaintiffs fight the good fight, and push the Morgan Hill T-shirt case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, or was this a reasonable restriction on free speech rights?

On March 30, 2015, the Supreme Court threw in the towel, or rather the T-shirt, on the case as well; they declined to hear the appeal from the Ninth Circuit. Class dismissed.

Editor's Note, March 31, 2015: This post was first published in November 2011. It has since been updated.

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