A mother of two students in Howard City, Mich., filed a lawsuit claiming the public school district violated her sons’ First Amendment rights by asking them to remove sweatshirts with the slogan “Let’s go Brandon” on them.
The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday against the Michigan Tri County Area Schools district, an assistant principal and a teacher, claims that their school censored her sons’ “peaceful, non-disruptive politics” by having them take off the sweatshirts, causing them “to suffer irreparable injury.”
The phrase “Let’s go Brandon,” born of a viral NASCAR race moment in October 2021, is understood to be code for swearing at President Biden, the lawsuit confirms.The slogan conveys the same opposition as saying a four-letter expletive and then “Joe Biden,” just “sanitized to express the sentiment without using profanity or vulgarity,” the suit said.
In February of 2022, the mother’s sixth-grade son wore a “Let’s go Brandon” sweatshirt to Tri County Middle School. The assistant principal at the school stopped him in the hallway and asked him to take it off, according to the lawsuit, telling him the slogan was equivalent to “the F-word.” He took it off because he feared getting in trouble.
The suit said the student wore the sweatshirt again in early 2022 and was asked by a teacher to take it off, adding, “I’ve told you before and won’t tell you again.”
In May, the student’s older brother, an eighth-grader at the same school, was removed from class and asked to remove his “Let’s go Brandon” sweatshirt, according to the suit.
The dispute centers on whether the phrase constitutes as profanity, said Conor Fitzpatrick, a lawyer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the organization representing the family.
The superintendent of Tri County Area Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
In June, the school district said in a letter released by its lawyers: “The District prohibits clothing or styles of expression that are vulgar or profane,” concluding, “‘Let’s Go Brandon’ is transparent code for using profanity against the President.”
After “Let’s Go Brandon” took hold as an inside joke among many Republicans, its use spurred some controversy as it spread to the floor of Congress and across T-shirts.
The dispute is just the latest clash over students’ right to express themselves at school through their clothing — others have involved “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats.
Tri County Middle School is the only public school for middle graders in Howard City, a town of about 2,000 people about 30 miles north of Grand Rapids. The school’s dress code prohibits clothing that is “obscene” or that contains “messages or illustrations that are lewd, indecent, vulgar, or profane.” The suit said that standard has been inappropriately applied to enact a ban against “Let’s go Brandon” clothing.
“Schools can stop kids from dropping F-bombs in class and that’s entirely appropriate,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, “but these kids didn’t do that.” He said the slogan alludes to a vulgar phrase but that it is not more vulgar than “a radio edit of a song that plays without the swear words.”
In a news release, the foundation said “the incident is part of a pattern of political favoritism by the school district,” citing when a school administrator ordered a student to stop wearing a flag supporting former President Donald Trump as a cape at a field day, while allowing others to wear gay Pride flags in the same manner.
The suit is seeking a court order striking down the school district’s “viewpoint-discriminatory ban on ‘Let’s go Brandon’ apparel” and a declaration from the court that the policy violates the First Amendment, in addition to damages and attorney’s fees, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
In a statement shared by the foundation, the students’ mother said school administrators saw the sweatshirts as an “opportunity to discriminate against opinions they didn’t like.”
Mr. Fitzpatrick, who called the foundation “proudly nonpartisan” and noted that it had recently defended the rights of college students to host a drag show on campus, said free speech is in danger across the country. “There is a worrying tendency on both sides of the aisle to censor speech that they don’t like rather than just disagreeing with it,” he said.
“Finding creative ways around swearing at school is as old as swearing itself,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said, and when students “do it with respect to political expression, it’s squarely protected by the First Amendment.”