WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether students can be barred from taking their redneck humor to class.
Justices rejected an appeal from a school district that wanted the court to allow it to bar redneck attire. It was a victory for a New Jersey teenager suspended for wearing a T-shirt he bought at a Wal-Mart store. He also had been criticized for wearing shirts with the Confederate flag (search).
The case raised an interesting question about how far school leaders can go to prevent discipline problems, without violating students' free speech rights.
An appeals court held that the word "redneck" was not used to intimidate and harass other students, and that the school in New Jersey overstepped its bounds in punishing Thomas Sypniewski Jr. (search) The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned whether schools would next try to stop the use of other words like hillbilly.
Officials in the district in rural Warren County, N.J., claimed Sypniewki's shirt, featuring jokes of comedian Jeff Foxworthy (search), violated an anti-harassment and intimidation policy enacted because of racial tension at the high school. The policy also banned the display of the Confederate flag on school grounds or at school events. Court records show the school has few black students.
James Broscious, the school district's attorney, had urged the court to schedule arguments in the case, telling justices "this issue is very significant, considering the current situation in our nation's schools, and the need for administrations to be proactive to ensure a safe atmosphere for all the children."
Gerald Walpin, the attorney for Sypniewski, who has already graduated, said there were no problems with redneck T-shirts at the high school near the Pennsylvania border.
Sypniewski was suspended for three days for wearing the shirt that bore comedian Foxworthy's "Top 10 Reasons You Might Be a Redneck Sports Fan." Among them: "you wear a baseball cap to bed," and "you know the Hooter's menu by heart."
The case is Warren Hills Regional School Board of Education v Sypniewski, 02-1328.
Also Monday, the Supreme Court refused to consider whether parents whose children are required to attend schools in another community should have representatives on that school board. At issue is a situation in New Jersey where one town sends hundreds of students to a neighboring borough's schools.
Attorney Kenneth Starr, representing Branchburg residents, said that the Constitution guarantees Branchburg parents a voice in the policy decisions of their children's' education in nearby Somerville.
The case is Board of Education of the Township of Branchburg v. Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville, 02-1302.