Wisconsin school's ban on T-shirts depicting guns prompts federal lawsuit

smolaw11/iStock(MILWAUKEE) — A Wisconsin high school has been hit with a federal lawsuit alleging it is violating the constitutional rights of two students by forbidding them from wearing T-shirts on campus that depict guns in a “non-threatening, non-violent manner.”

The lawsuit was filed in Milwaukee federal court by the mothers of two students at Kettle Moraine High School in Wales, Wisconsin, who are self-described gun enthusiasts, avid hunters and supporters of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“An image of a gun on a shirt, you know — there’s a giant leap of faith to get from that to an actual school shooting. I mean, there’s just not any correlation between those two,” John Monroe, an attorney for the students’ mothers, Tara Lloyd and Kimberly Newhouse, told ABC affiliate WISN-TV in Milwaukee.

Monroe said his clients are not seeking any monetary damages, but are requesting a permanent injunction prohibiting the school from barring the students from wearing T-shirts that depict “firearms in a non-violent, non-threatening manner.”

Beth Kaminski, the principal of Kettle Moraine High School, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

On Feb. 19, according to the suit filed on Thursday, Kaminski allegedly had Lloyd’s son removed from class and brought to her office because he was wearing a T-shirt bearing the inscription “Wisconsin Carry, Inc.” and the gun-rights organization’s logo of a handgun partly tucked behind the inscription as if it were a holster.

Kaminski and her associate principal allegedly informed Lloyd’s son that the school’s dress code “prohibits wearing anything threatening, violent and illegal, such as drugs and alcohol,” and told him to cover his T-shirt with his jacket, according to the suit.

On the same day, Newhouse’s son was also called to the principal’s office and told to cover up his T-shirt, which was inscribed with the words “Pew Professional” and depicted the outline of an AR-15 style rifle, according to the suit. The word “pew” is used to denote the sound made by “real or futuristic firearms when they are discharged,” the lawsuit states.

Both students were allegedly told by the principal and associate principal that making them cover up their T-shirts was not a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech, according to the suit.

Kaminski, according to the suit, later followed up in an email to Newhouse, writing, “We do not allow students to wear clothes that depict guns” and told her that her son would not be allowed to wear such clothing to school in the future.

“The shirts are not threatening, violent, or illegal, and they do not depict drugs or alcohol,” the lawsuit reads. “The dress code does not provide objective criteria by which plaintiffs can determine what clothing is restricted.”

In a statement to WISN, a spokesperson for the Kettle Moraine School District defended Kaminski, saying school officials have “legitimate concerns in preventing school violence.”

“Wearing shirts with images of weapons is not an issue of free speech, and it can be respectfully regulated by the District,” the spokesperson said.

In 2019, there were back-to-back school shootings in Wisconsin. One of the shootings occurred at a high school just eight miles from Kettle Moraine High School in Waukesha, where on Dec. 3 a school resource officer shot and wounded a 17-year-old student who allegedly pointed a pellet gun at classmate’s head.

The other school shooting occurred on Dec. 4 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, about 80 miles from Kettle Moraine High School, where another school resource officer shot and wounded a 16-year-old student who allegedly stabbed him.

Monroe said precedent has already been established in Wisconsin on the issue of whether T-shirts depicting guns are protected under the First Amendment.

In November 2018, Monroe represented Matthew Schoenecker, a student at Markesan High School in Markesan, Wisconsin, who was barred from wearing to school a T-shirt with guns and other weapons spelling out the word love.

Schoenecker filed a federal lawsuit claiming his First Amendment rights were violated. A federal judge rejected the school principal’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and granted the student a preliminary injunction, ruling the student would likely prevail based on the merits of his case against the principal.

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