by Cortney Weil
Last fall, a high school senior in Iowa was suspended for wearing a pro-Second Amendment shirt to her government class, and now her mother is suing the teacher, the principal, and the district.
On Monday, Janet Bristow of Johnston, Iowa, a northwest suburb of Des Moines, filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court alleging that the suspension violated her daughter’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
In late August 2022, Tom Griffin taught his government students at Johnston High School that their rights were “extremely limited” once they entered the classroom, despite the 1969 landmark SCOTUS ruling, Tinker, which affirmed that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Griffin insisted that he would forbid students from wearing any clothing which depicts “guns, alcohol, or any other ‘inappropriate material,'” the lawsuit states.
Bristow’s daughter, identified in the lawsuit only as “A.B.,” was in that class and determined that Griffin had erred in his assessment. Two days later, on September 1, she went to school wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a rifle and the phrase “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ do you not understand?” emblazoned on the front.
Bristow alleged in the lawsuit that A.B. had worn that shirt before without incident and that the girl’s older brother, who graduated from Johnston High School in 2019, also wore the shirt without a problem during his time at the school.
But Griffin had a problem with the shirt, and he dismissed her from class and sent her to the administration. Bristow soon afterward arrived and discussed the issue with Nate Zittergruen and Randy Klein, both associate principals, and Ryan Woods, the school’s principal. Zittergruen told Bristow that the shirt could be perceived as threatening or offensive, and the administrative team gave A.B. the choice either to change her shirt or face suspension.
Chris Billings, the district’s executive director of school leadership, supported the administration and claimed that the shirt violated school dress code. So after A.B. refused to change her shirt, she was issued an out-of-school suspension.
Later that evening, Bristow said she received an apology from Superintendent Laura Kacer as well as Billings, who said he had come to realize that the shirt is, in fact, “political speech.”
While Bristow was grateful for the apologies, she does not believe that the issue has been resolved. For one thing, Griffin has neither apologized nor clarified the issue with his class, leaving the impression that “A.B. was wrong and that her opinions were not welcome in the classroom,” the document stated. A.B. also still has the suspension listed on her school record.
In the suit, Bristow is seeking the following forms of relief:
- affirmation that clothing featuring firearms “in a non-threatening, non-violent manner” is protected under the First Amendment;
- a permanent injunction which will prevent the defendants listed in the lawsuit from ever restricting such clothing again in the future; and
- compensation for damages, the costs associated with the legal process, and any other “relief” the court deems “appropriate.”