ACLU of Virginia filed brief in support of NRA and Student

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled that a National Rifle Association T-shirt worn by an Albemarle County student is entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other kinds of expression in school. The appellate court ruling reverses an earlier Charlottesville federal district court decision allowing the T-shirt to be banned from school.
The T-shirt in question features the National Rifle Association’s abbreviation, NRA, in large block letters that contain silhouetted human figures holding firearms. The student, Alan Newsome, had attended a shooting sports safety class where he obtained the T-shirt. He had been allowed to wear other NRA shirts to school, but those did not depict firearms.
According to the district court, the school only banned the T-shirt because depictions of firearms appeared on it, not because of any message associated with the gun rights organization. Thus, according to the court, only the “form” of the NRA’s message was being banned, not the message itself, meaning that the First Amendment did not offer any protection.
The NRA, which represented Newsome, and the ACLU, which filed a friend of the court brief, asked the Fourth Circuit to rule that the district court erred in drawing a distinction between the depictions of firearms on the T-shirt and the NRA message, and pointed to a recent case involving the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ special license plates. In that case, the court ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to restore the Confederate flag logo to the SCV license plate because it was an integral part of SCV’s message.
The Fourth Circuit agreed with the NRA and the ACLU’s analyses. The Charlottesville may now revisit the case and apply the legal standards for free expression in public schools. Under these standards, the school can only ban the T-shirt if it is vulgar or it substantially disrupts the educations process.
“Anyone who has ever seen an advertisement in a magazine can tell you that the pictures are often as important as the words, and that they can’t be separated from the words without changing the message,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis.
“This is an important First Amendment case,” added Willis. “If the appellate court had allowed the school to draw a distinction between the form of the message and the message itself, school officials would have the power to ban almost of any kind of image on school grounds.”

Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022