News (USA)

Federal appeals court shuts down kid’s lawsuit to wear a transphobic t-shirt to school

8th grader Liam Morrison
8th grader Liam Morrison Photo: Alliance Defending Freedom

An eighth-grade boy has lost his appeal in a case that tested the right of school administrators to regulate hate speech on school campuses.

In 2023, 12-year-old Liam Morrison sued John T. Nichols Middle School in Middleborough, Massachusetts after he was barred from class for wearing a t-shirt on campus bearing the phrase “There are only two genders,” an expression often used by anti-LGBTQ+ activists to mean that trans identities are not valid.

Morrison, then in seventh grade, was called into a meeting with administrators, who told him there had been complaints about the shirt’s message and that it violated the school’s prohibition on hate speech. After being told he would have to remove the shirt before returning to class, Morrison refused and left school for the day. There was no subsequent disciplinary action.

Two months later, Morrison showed up on campus in the same shirt but with the word “censored” tape over a portion of the message. Morrison was again told he would have to remove his shirt or be barred from class. He again chose to leave school for the day.

Morrison wore other t-shirts on other days with political messages, as well, including “Don’t tread on me” and “First Amendment Rights,” which he was not required to remove.

Morrison is represented by the crusading Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has made a cottage industry out of cases challenging the rights of LGBTQ+ people in court. It is designated a hate group by the SPLC.

ADF attorneys argued Morrison was offering an alternative viewpoint to the Middleborough school district’s celebration of Pride Month, with its displays of Pride flags and promotion of “an unlimited number of genders.”

Writing for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Chief Judge David J. Barron found the school district was within its rights to regulate Morrison’s speech.

“In following the lead of other courts that have grappled with similar cases, we emphasize that in many realms of public life one must bear the risk of being subjected to messages that are demeaning of race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, even when those messages are highly disparaging of those characteristics,” Barron wrote for the court.

But while Supreme Court precedent holds that schools must permit debate over “even the most contentious and controversial topics,” it doesn’t follow “that our public schools must be a similar unregulated place,” he said.

The court relied on a number of precedents, including Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which determined students wearing black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War did not interfere with the conduct of school business.

Morrison’s case was different, the court found.

The shirt’s message “may communicate that only two gender identities — male and female —are valid, and any others are invalid or nonexistent,” Barron wrote.

“Students who identify differently,” he said, “have a right to attend school without being confronted by messages attacking their identities.”

“The question here is not whether the t-shirts should have been barred,” he wrote. “The question is who should decide whether to bar them — educators or federal judges. We cannot say that in this instance the Constitution assigns the sensitive (and potentially consequential) judgment about what would make ‘an environment conducive to learning at NMS to us rather than to the educators closest to the scene.”

Middleborough wasn’t unreasonable to find that the shirt would be understood in the middle-school setting “to demean the identity of transgender and gender non-conforming” students.

While “the shirt’s message is not at the farthest end of demeaning,” Barron wrote, it exceeds the standard of “tepidly negative.”

ADF says they are “likely to appeal” the ruling.

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