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Massachusetts school allowed to ban student's 'two genders' shirt, court rules

Published 06/10/2024, 12:54 PM
Updated 06/10/2024, 04:05 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Lawyer David Cortman speaks with the media next to his client Liam Morrison, after arguments before a federal appeals court concerning a middle school's decision to not allow him to wear a t-shirt that says, "There are only two genders", in Bo

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) - A Massachusetts public middle school did not violate a student's free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution by requiring the boy to stop wearing a T-shirt that said "There are only two genders," a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday issued a ruling siding with educators at Nichols Middle School in Middleborough who last year required Liam Morrison to remove the shirt after concluding its message demeaned the identity of transgender and gender non-conforming students.

The case is one of a growing number of lawsuits by conservative litigants challenging school policies aimed at protecting LGBT students from harassment and respecting their preferred pronouns and gender identities.

Morrison's lawyers said the boy, 12 years old at the time, wore the shirt in seventh grade to express his political disagreement with the school's support for views that biology alone does not determine gender. His attorneys said the school expressed these views through pro-LGBT posters and Pride Month celebrations.

Educators required Morrison in April 2023 to either remove the shirt or leave for the day, which he did. The same thing happened about a month later when he wore a shirt saying "There are [censored] genders" after his case generated media coverage and protests.

His attorneys at the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom argued that officials violated his rights under the Constitution's First Amendment, which protects against government interference with speech, by deeming the shirts a violation of a hate speech provision of the school's dress code.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge David Barron, whose opinion was joined by two fellow appointees of Democratic presidents, said the shirts could be understood to communicate that male and female are the only two valid gender identities.

As a result, Barron said the court could not conclude that educators acted unreasonably in finding that the shirts demeaned the identity of transgender and gender non-conforming students. The judge wrote that educators have legal discretion to make that call.

"The question here is not whether the t-shirts should have been barred," Barron said. "The question is who should decide whether to bar them - educators or federal judges."

The ruling upheld a trial court judge's decision. Morrison's lawyers said he will likely pursue a further appeal. They could either ask the full 1st Circuit to reconsider the case or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Lawyer David Cortman speaks with the media next to his client Liam Morrison, after arguments before a federal appeals court concerning a middle school's decision to not allow him to wear a t-shirt that says,

"Students don't lose their free speech rights the moment they walk into a school building," David Cortman, an attorney for Morrison, said in a statement.

The school's lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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