Hillsboro School District reaches settlement with Liberty teen
The Hillsboro School District has settled a lawsuit with a former Liberty High School student who claimed his First Amendment rights were violated after wearing a pro-Donald Trump t-shirt to school earlier this year.
The district has agreed to pay Addison Barnes $25,000 after officials at Liberty removed him from class and ultimately sent him home from school after he wore a shirt promoting President Trump's proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The school's principal, Greg Timmons, has also sent a formal written apology to the student as part of the settlement agreement.
"The brief letter apologizes for the initial suspension charged to Mr. Barnes for leaving campus and any upset that may have caused, and wishes him well in the future," the Hillsboro School District stated in a release on Tuesday, July 24.
Barnes filed the lawsuit in federal court on May 18, after he wore an anti-immigration shirt to a political science class earlier this year.
Barnes' shirt — which bore the words "Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.," and one of the president's most famous quotes from the campaign trail, "The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller" — attracted the attention of school officials after a student and a teacher complained.
Building a wall between the United States and Mexico is a controversial topic in Hillsboro, where more than one-quarter of the city is Latino. The student and teacher said they were offended by the shirt's message.
In the release from the Hillsboro School District, officials stated, "Federal law, through the findings of Tinker vs. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), affords schools the right to limit a student's speech or expression if school administrators can reasonably forecast that the speech will materially and substantially disrupt the school or if the speech violates other students' rights to exist in a safe and secure environment."
Administrators believed they could reasonably forecast disruption among students as a result of the message on Barnes' shirt.
"Given the fact that 33.1% of Liberty's population is of Hispanic origin, and that there had been recent events such as a 200+ student sit-in to protest immigration policy, deportations of students' family members, and racially-motivated incidents, Liberty High School administration believed they could reasonably forecast that Mr. Barnes' shirt might cause other students to feel unsafe and could potentially lead to walkouts, altercations, or other disruptive actions," the release stated.
Barnes was removed from class by an assistant principal and told to cover the shirt. Barnes initially agreed, but later changed his mind, believing that his First Amendment right to peacefully express his political views was being violated, according to the lawsuit.
Barnes was removed from class again, this time by a school security guard, according to the lawsuit. School officials threatened to suspend the student for up to 10 days for defying school administrators. They reportedly told Barnes he would be disciplined if he wore the shirt again.
Barnes' lawsuit made national headlines, and Barnes was interviewed by several national outlets, including FOX News. In May, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order on the Hillsboro School District, ordering administrators to allow Barnes to wear the shirt on campus.
"Addison Barnes should be commended for his courage," Brad Benbrook, one of Barnes' attorneys, said in a written statement on Tuesday, July 24. "The message on his shirt wasn't the point of this case. We brought the case to police the thought police. The First Amendment does not allow what is going on in too many schools today."
Also backing Barnes in the suit was the American Civil Liberties Union, which released a statement saying the school district should protect the student's first amendment rights.
Barnes' lawsuit claimed that others with liberal political views were allowed to express themselves without interference. One teacher at the school displayed a sign in their classroom reading "Sanctuary City, Welcome Home." Hillsboro city officials voted to declare the town a "sanctuary city" in 2017, a decision that Barnes said he found offensive.
"Everyone knows that if a student wears an anti-Trump shirt to school, the teachers won't think twice about it," Barnes said in a statement after Tuesday's settlement. "But when I wore a pro-Trump shirt, I got suspended. That's not right."
The district stated that the incident "represents a grey area in the law that has yet to be fully defined" and that while they were prepared to argue their position further, the cost and disruption of litigation led them to compromise in the best interest of the district.
"As an educational institution, Hillsboro School District and each of our schools supports, encourages, and celebrates free speech and reasoned debate," the release stated. "We also have a responsibility to ensure that each of our students feels welcome and safe in our schools so they can effectively learn. This was an instance where we were challenged to do both simultaneously and the decision landed on the side of ensuring student safety. Moving forward, we will continue to use professional discretion to meet both objectives and will actively seek ways to turn sensitive situations into learning opportunities."