PHILADELPHIA A New Jersey school district was wrong to suspend a former student for wearing a T-shirt with redneck humor, a federal appeals court panel ruled yesterday.
In a 2-1 decision, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban was unconstitutional because the "You Might Be a Redneck" T-shirt had no history of causing problems among students in the Warren Hills Regional district.
"The need to respect the rights of students requires a careful balancing," the three-judge panel wrote. The panel's majority also determined that the district's ban on material that could cause "ill will" also was unconstitutional because the provision was too broad.
Thomas Sypniewski Jr., 19, challenged the ban after he was suspended for three days and lost parking privileges at Warren Hills Regional High School for wearing the shirt that bore comedian Jeff Foxworthy's "Top 10 Reasons You Might Be a Redneck Sports Fan."
Sypniewski said he was happy with the ruling but declined further comment. He graduated last year but decided to file the lawsuit so his younger brothers, who attend district schools, would not face the same trouble he did.
His attorney, Gerald Walpin, said the decision meant the Warren County district would have to rewrite its anti-harassment policy.
"I think this is a victory for the First Amendment," Walpin told The Express-Times of Easton, Pa., for today's editions.
James Broscious, the district's attorney, said the ruling puts school officials in a tough position.
"You have to wait until something happens then deal with it," Broscious said. "When you're in a school setting you can't wait."
The district adopted its anti-harassment and intimidation policy last year after several months of racial tension at its high school in Washington Township. The policy most notably banned the display of the Confederate flag on school grounds or at school events.
However, the 3rd Circuit ruled that the district overstepped its bounds when it banned the T-shirt because it contained the word "redneck."
"Defendants have not, on this record, established that the shirt might genuinely threaten disruption or, indeed, that it violated any of the particular provisions of the harassment policy," the court wrote.