Penn. student loses bid to wear 'terrorist hunting permit' T-shirt

PENNSYLVANIA -- A U.S. District Court judge partially sided on Sept. 30 in favor of a student's First Amendment lawsuit against his school district for wearing a T-shirt with an image of a gun and a ''terrorist hunting permit.''

Judge James K. Gardner ruled in favor of Donald Miller's claim against the Penn Manor School District in Lancaster, Pa. that parts of the district's policies regarding student dress and expression were ''unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.'' But Gardner decided against Miller's key argument that banned him from wearing the T-shirt, which Miller's attorneys, described as a show of support for U.S. troops currently in Iraq.

The T-shirt became controversial when Miller, who at the time was a freshman at Penn Manor High School, came to school three separate times with the shirt on. The front pocket of the T-shirt had an image of a handgun with the words ''Volunteer'' above the image and ''Homeland Security'' below the image. The back of the shirt read ''Special Issue-Resident-Lifetime License, United States Terrorist Hunting Permit, Permit No. 91101, Gun Owner-No Bag Limit'' in block letters with another image of a larger handgun.

According to the court's opinion, Miller was first reprimanded by the school after his math teacher brought Miller into the hallway to explain to him that his shirt ''promoted the hunting and killing of human beings and might not be appropriate for school.'' The math teacher was made aware of the T-shirt by a female student who indicated to her in a note that she was ''uncomfortable with the T-shirt's content,'' according to court records. The teacher then confirmed with a school principal that the shirt was inappropriate and not to be worn in school.

Despite this, Miller wore the shirt two more times until he was given detention after Assistant Principal Christopher Moritzen told him he would have to go to a restroom and turn the T-shirt inside out. When Miller walked away, he uttered the words, ''this is bullshit.'' Miller was given a two-hour detention for the ''use of foul language and failure to follow direction.''

To establish the school district's ban on the shirt, Gardner applied Morse v. Frederick, which ruled that school officials could censor a student's speech that was ''reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.''

''Based upon Morse, speech that promotes illegal behavior may also be restricted,'' the judge said.

The judge declined to apply the U.S. Supreme Court precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, ruling that

Tinker applied only to protect political speech, while the school's reaction to the shirt was based on its advocacy of violence, not a political message. Tinker established First Amendment rights for free expression of students.

''Tinker was not the final discussion by the Supreme Court of free speech in the school setting,'' Garner wrote in his opinion.

The judge did rule that a district policy in the school's handbook asserting that students should not wear clothes that are ''a distraction to the educational environment'' was unconstitutionally vague and over-broad.

The judge also found that a policy prohibiting speech that seeks to ''establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view'' was unconstitutionally over-broad, because it ''attempted to restrict what effectively amounts to all religious speech.'' The religious speech policy was removed from the district handbook before the court's ruling, but the ruling makes clear that the policy cannot be reinstated.

A message left for Miller's attorney Leonard G. Brown III inquiring whether an appeal would be filed was not immediately returned.

news, Penn Manor High School, Pennsylvania