On February 20, 2020, two Wisconsin high school students filed a complaint against their high school principal in federal district court, alleging violations of their First Amendment rights, after the school principal prohibited them from wearing shirts featuring guns, which the students claimed were expressions of their support for the Second Amendment.

According to their complaint, on February 19, 2020, the two students wore shirts that depicted guns to school. One student’s shirt featured a rifle with the words “Pew Professional,” referencing the sound a rifle makes when shot. The other student’s shirt featured the outline of a holster and handgun with the words “Wisconsin Carry, Inc.,” a local grassroots gun rights organization. The students allege that the principal required them to cover up their shirts for the remainder of the school day and instructed them not to wear shirts depicting guns to school.

Per the complaint, school administrators stated that the shirts violated the school’s dress code, which prohibits clothing that depicts anything “threatening, violent, and illegal, such as drugs and alcohol.” The students claim that the shirts are “non-threatening and non-violent” and that neither caused a significant disruption to the school. Moreover, the students allege that the school’s dress code contains no reference to the procedures relied upon by the administrators.

The students claim that the school administrators’ action violated their First Amendment rights by restricting their freedom of speech through an overbroad restriction on all clothing depicting firearms, as well as a due process violation because of the school’s failure to provide objective criteria for evaluating what clothing is or is not appropriate. The students seek a declaration that their right to wear clothing that depicts firearms in a non-violent and non-threatening manner is protected speech, an injunction prohibiting the school’s ability to restrict their ability to wear this type of clothing, and attorneys’ fees.

This case represents the second case regarding alleged violations of freedom of speech rights associated with student clothing in Wisconsin schools in the past year. Although the District Court in Wisconsin does not govern Illinois, this case could potentially have far-reaching implications for Illinois schools if appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which does have jurisdiction over Illinois. School administrators are tasked with balancing school safety concerns with students’ rights to self-expression in the school setting. Although school administrators retain the ability to place reasonable limits on student self-expression, these limitations should be clearly articulated and applied in a consistent and objective manner.

We will continue to monitor this case and provide updates. Please contact any attorney in our Students/Special Education practice group with questions on students’ speech rights and dress code.