An eighth grade student in West Virginia was arrested and taken to jail after an argument with a teacher over a National Rifle Association T-shirt that displayed a hunting rifle. The Associated Press reports:
[Jared] Marcum’s stepfather, Allen Lardieri, said the youth was waiting in line in the school cafeteria Thursday when a teacher ordered the eighth-grader to remove the T-shirt or to turn it inside out.
Marcum said was sent to the office where he again refused the order.
“When the police came, I was still talking and telling them that this was wrong, that they cannot do this, it’s not against any school policy. The officer, he told me to sit down and be quiet. I said, `No, I’m exercising my right to free speech.’ I said it calmly,” he said.
Police charged him with disrupting an educational process and obstructing an officer, he said.
“The only disturbance was caused by the teacher. He raised his voice,” he said. […]
Logan County Schools’ dress code, which is posted on the school system’s website, prohibits clothing and accessories that display profanity, violence, discriminatory messages or sexually suggestive phrases. Clothing displaying advertisements for any alcohol, tobacco, or drug product also is prohibited.
Their lawyer, Ben White, said that the T-shirt did not appear to violate any school policy.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long protected student political speech, holding that students do not “shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door.” School officials may censor speech, however, if it disrupts the educational process. More recently, school censorship of a banner promoting drug use was upheld by the Supreme Court. On these particular facts, the only disruption appears to have ensued once the teacher asked Marcum to remove the T-shirt, but there may be weak arguments that wearing images of a weapon would fall under the school’s policy against clothing that displays “violence,” and that the policy is tailored to avoid disruptions.
Because the police would not talk to reporters, it is difficult to make a full First Amendment assessment. But regardless of whether the school’s conduct was protected speech, there is no clear justification for police intervention, let alone arrest and jailing of a 14-year-old. According to accounts of the incident, Marcum did not engage in violence or other dangerous behavior. In fact, he appears to have done nothing other than argue for his right to wear the T-shirt. Teenagers are bound to challenge authority; sometimes rightly so. Criminalizing what is at most a school disciplinary violation perpetuates what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, in which youth are diverted away from school and into the criminal justice system.
The city police chief told ABCNews.com that Logan was arrested for “disrupting the school process” and that he “almost incited a riot,” although he does not explain how. This language is clearly intended to counter a First Amendment claim. But even if his conduct were disruptive, it remains unclear why it justified a criminal arrest. The police chief also said Marcum was released after 30 minutes. When Marcum returned from his suspension, he wore the same T-shirt, and many fellow students also wore NRA T-shirts in solidarity.