RICHMOND, Va. A federal appeals court yesterday barred a Virginia school district from enforcing a dress code prohibiting students from wearing clothing that depicts weapons.
The National Rifle Association had challenged Albemarle County schools on behalf of a student who was ordered to turn his NRA T-shirt inside-out because administrators feared it could encourage violence. The shirt bears silhouettes of gunmen and the words "NRA Sports Shooting Camp."
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a judge erred in refusing to halt enforcement of the policy challenged by 13-year-old Alan Newsom while his First Amendment lawsuit is pending. The panel said the Jack Jouett Middle School dress code is too broad and is likely to be found unconstitutional.
Albemarle schools failed to show that Newsom's shirt or any other article of clothing worn by a student and depicting weapons caused any disturbance, the panel noted.
"This lack of evidence strongly suggests that the ban on messages related to weapons was not necessary to maintain order and discipline at Jouett," Judge Clyde H. Hamilton wrote in the unanimous opinion.
The panel said the policy is so broad that it could prohibit clothing displaying the Virginia state seal, which depicts a woman armed with a spear standing with one foot on the chest of a vanquished tyrant. It also could cover the musket-toting Pioneer mascot of neighboring Albemarle County High School and the crossed-sabers logo of the University of Virginia's athletic teams, the court said.
"It's been our contention that the school's dress code would not be applied in such a broad fashion as to prohibit those types of symbols," said Mark Trank, the deputy county attorney.
The school's dress code did not expressly prohibit images of weapons when Alan, an NRA member, was told to turn the shirt inside-out in April 2002.
"It made me mad," Alan said in a telephone interview after the appeals panel issued its ruling. "I like target shooting. It's in no way violent and they're trying to tell me it is."
The policy was amended to cover weapons before the following school year.
"Alan has a sport that he enjoys and he was singled out and made to feel like he was doing something wrong when he wasn't," said the teenager's father, Fred Newsom. "They made him feel ashamed of his sport of choice."
Albemarle school officials referred calls to Trank, who said he had not had time to thoroughly read the 4th Circuit opinion.
Fred Newsom said that after school officials told Alan he couldn't wear the NRA shirt, the boy contacted the organization to find out how many other schools have similar policies. The NRA legal department responded with an offer to sue on his behalf.
"Our position has been that this was political correctness run amok, and I think the court recognized that," NRA lawyer Dan Zavadil said.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore took the unusual position of opposing a political subdivision of the state, filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the NRA and the Newsoms.
"We're very pleased that the 4th Circuit has recognized a law-abiding student's right to express himself in a way that is nondisruptive and nonoffensive," said Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
In denying the preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon declared that the Newsoms were unlikely to win their lawsuit and that Alan would not suffer "irreparable harm" by not being allowed to wear the T-shirt.
The appeals panel disagreed on both counts, ruling that Newsom "has demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits."
Also, the U.S. Supreme Court "has explained that 'loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,'" Hamilton wrote.