School Bans “Redneck” T-shirt, Loses Court Battle
Disciplining a student for wearing a $5 T-shirt five years ago could end up costing the Warren Hills Regional School District close to $1 million.As it usual these days, speech deemed politically incorrect is claimed to “offend” or “harrass” some politically correct victim group.
The Warren County district has been ordered to pay nearly $600,000 in plaintiffs’ legal fees incurred during the 5-year-old free speech rights battle over whether a high school student could wear his “redneck” T-shirt. That tally does not include the amount the district has paid its own lawyers.
Thomas Sypniewski Jr. was suspended for three days during his senior year in 2001 for wearing a T-shirt that listed blue-collar comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s Top 10 reasons someone might be considered a redneck sports fan (Reason No. 4: Your bowling team has its own fight song).
District officials said the T-shirt violated the high school’s anti-harassment policy, enforced in the wake of racial incidents in which students referring to themselves as “Hicks” and “Rednecks” harassed black students.
Foxworthy, whose catch phrase is, “You might be a redneck if . . . ,” makes fun of his roots in the rural South with references to tattoo parlors that have financing plans and to a friend who brought beer to a job interview.
Sypniewski’s New York attorney, Gerald Walpin, said the former student never wanted more than an apology and the freedom to wear the shirt. Walpin said he went “on bended knee,” begging the district not to force Sypniewski’s family to have to bring a lawsuit.
School officials have maintained their actions controlled the racially charged atmosphere in 2001.
School board President James T. Momary said given the racial tensions at the time, the district determined the fight over the T-shirt was one worth making.
“We felt we owed it to a minority that was being picked on, to stand up for them,” Momary said last night. “Our job as board members is to guarantee the safety of our kids. It also is to show them the right thing to do.”
The irony here, of course, is that Foxworthy’s humor makes fun of “rednecks,” although in a gentle, good-natured way. It’s not as though the student wore a t-shirt saying “Redneck Power” (although we think he had a right to do that, if he wanted).
So the liberal bureaucrats didn’t seem to care about free speech. They didn’t care whether the shirt was seen as offensive by black students; they didn’t care whether it objectively was offensive. They just saw the word “redneck” and freaked.
One problem with all these efforts to stop “harrassment” and “offensive speech” is that they will never be implemented in an even-handed way. We can’t imagine a t-shirt that demeans males worn by feminist students being censored.
We can’t imagine that Che Guevara t-shirts would ever be banned, even in Miami schools where many kids have parents or grandparents who were persecuted by Castro.
We hope that many more students use the courts to punish school administrations that try to impose politically correct censorship.