Shirt Focus of Free-Speech Fight

Shirt Focus of Free-Speech Fight

By Carl M. Cannon - June 24, 2013

In West Virginia, the love of freedom is ingrained more directly in the fabric of the state's legacy than in most places. It broke away from Virginia at the outset of the Civil War over slavery, becoming the 35th state in the Union 150 years ago this week. But even before that, West Virginia's forbidding geography had stamped itself on the character of its people.

The Appalachians weren't conducive to cotton farming, so plantations were a rarity in the mountains. On a more basic level, slavery offended the sensibilities of the hardy folk who hewed a living out of the mountains of what started as western Virginia.

West Virginia's state seal tells the story. At its center is a boulder inscribed with the date of statehood, June 20, 1863 – only days after Robert E. Lee's victory in the Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester opened up the North to Confederate invasion.

On either the side of the boulder, stand two men, each of whom represents the extraction industries that have long driven West Virginia's economy. One is a farmer with an ax and a plow; the other is a miner wielding the implements of that occupation. In the foreground lie two rifles, resting on the ground, accompanying a red liberty cap. Circling the seal is the state nickname and its motto: Montani Semper Liberi, which means "Mountaineers are Always Free."

Today, if a West Virginia schoolboy were to wear a T-shirt sporting that slogan and accompanied by those rifles, he'd risk suspension, arrest and prosecution. That's happening currently to 14-year-old Jared Marcum in Logan County, W.Va.

The agreed-upon facts of case, which has received some national attention, are as follows: In late April, a Logan Middle School teacher noticed Jared in the lunch line, wearing a T-shirt with a hunting rifle and a scope, along with a National Rifle Association insignia and the phrase "Protect Your Right."

Administrators in this country are understandably sensitive about guns in school these days, especially in the hands of intransigent young men. But when this teacher told Jared to remove the shirt or wear it inside out, the student responded in a way that might have made a less-skittish educator proud: He replied that the shirt's message did not violate the school's dress code.

For that provocation, he was sent to the principal's office, where he again refused to change his clothing. Police were called. "They cannot do this," Jared told the responding officer. "It's not against school policy."

Sit down, and be quiet, the uniformed member of Logan's finest told him. "No," the boy replied. "I'm exercising my right to free speech."

With that, he was off to police headquarters and a date in juvenile court, charged with some vague misdemeanor that amounts to obstructing a police investigation.

The case, which is pending, has become something of a cause célèbre in gun-rights circles, and the police are being hounded. "Our phone calls are unreal," Logan Police Chief E.K. Harper told a local television station. "We've got rashes of complaints, threats and everything in here."

"We're not the Nazi police," Harper added. "We've been unable to tell our whole side of it because laws in West Virginia prevent you from telling the details of a juvenile."

The chief's point is well-taken. The case hasn't been adjudicated yet, and these confrontations always have two sides. Yet, authorities in West Virginia seem to be missing the larger point. This case has attracted so much attention precisely because one needn't be a gun enthusiast to see the big picture.

What's going on in government these days not only alarms the NRA, it has also troubled the American Civil Liberties Union. Last month, Brenda Lee Green, executive director of the ACLU in West Virginia, wrote in the state's largest newspaper that all Americans are protected by the First Amendment – or should be.

"Free speech is for everyone," she wrote. "Schools cannot punish students based simply on the beliefs they hold."

This view was echoed by liberal legal scholar Jonathan Turley, who said that the spotlight shouldn't be on Jared Marcum at all, but, rather, on the school officials, cops and the stubborn local prosecutor.

It's actually gratifying that this episode and others like it – including the burgeoning NSA domestic spying scandal – have cut across party lines. If Fox News is agreeing with the Huffington Post (as they are when it comes to the Obama administration targeting of journalists), and if the ALCU and the NRA are on the same page, we know there's a real issue.

That issue poses a challenge for ideologues. Small-government conservatives like to say that Washington is the problem, but this 14-year-old boy is being prosecuted by local officials in a small town. Meanwhile, even large-government liberals can see in the West Virginia case the limits of "zero tolerance" policies and the inflexibility of the establishment educators who are so influential in the Democratic Party.

No, slogans aren't enough this time; not even "Mountaineers are always free." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Blurred Lines on Campus
Ruth Marcus · November 12, 2014
UC Silent When Prof Trashes Free Speech
Debra Saunders · November 11, 2014

Carl M. Cannon

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter