Fort Wayne Community Schools officials violated a high school student's
free-speech rights when they suspended him for wearing a T-shirt bearing the
likeness of an M-16 rifle and the text of the Marine Corps creed, a federal
court ruled on March 11.
The district suspended Nelson Griggs in 2003 for violating a provision of the
school dress code that prohibits students from wearing clothing depicting
"symbols of violence."
Griggs and his father, David, sued the school system in U.S. District Court
in Fort Wayne in February 2004, arguing the dress code was overly broad.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Roger B. Cosbey agreed in his 30-page ruling.
"Schools are under undeniable pressure to prevent student violence," and the
anti-violence section of the dress code is "a reasonable, constitutional tool
toward that end," Cosbey wrote.
But in the case of Griggs' Marine creed shirt, officials went too far, the ruling said.
"Griggs' shirt has no relation to the (school) board's legitimate concerns about school violence, nor is it likely to disrupt the educational process," wrote Cosbey.
Nelson Griggs wore the T-shirt to Elmhurst High School in March 2003 and was told by an official he would be disciplined if he wore it again. But Griggs believed
the shirt was protected under the First Amendment and wore it again the next
day, court documents said.
At that point, Elmhurst's principal ordered the teen to serve an in-school
suspension and told him he would be given an out-of-school suspension if he wore
the shirt again, the documents said.
Griggs did not wear the shirt again and the dispute was not entered in his
school record, according to court documents.
The dispute over the shirt occurred about six months after Elmhurst senior
Cheri Sue Hartman was kidnapped, tortured and shot, the ruling noted, and
students still were trying to cope with the effects of her murder.
The murder did not happen near the school, but relatives of Hartman and those
later convicted in her death still attended the school and occasionally
confronted each other, court documents said.
School officials objected in particular to a part of the text on the shirt
that read, "I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I
must shoot him before he shoots me," the document said.
The creed, written by a Marine Corps general after the attack on Pearl
Harbor, focuses on the relationship between a Marine and his or her rifle, and
is also known as "My Rifle."
The Griggs' lawsuit was supported by the Rutherford Institute of