Public school officials in Franklinton, La., likely violated the First Amendment rights of a high school senior when they painted over his parking spot, which featured a portrait of President Donald Trump wearing a stars-and-stripes bandanna and sunglasses. A federal district court determined that the portrait constituted “pure political speech.”

N.T., a 17-year-old senior at Pine Jr/Sr High School, contended that school officials initially approved of his portrait under school policy, which allows seniors to paint their parking spots in an effort to “foster school pride and comradery.” 

However, the school superintendent later ordered the Trump portrait removed and the parking spot repainted because the portrait might offend other students and lead to vandalism. 

N.T. sued in federal court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment free-speech rights. On Oct. 9, 2020, U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled in favor of N.T. in Thomas v. Varnado.

The court reasoned that the case was governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).  Under the Tinkerrationale, public school officials cannot censor student expression unless they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities.

In Tinker, the Court warned that public school officials should not act on “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance.” The federal court in Louisiana ruled that public school officials failed to show “that a substantial and material disruption was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances if the Trump painting were to remain.”

The court concluded that “the school’s removal of the painting restricting N.T.’s political speech cannot be justified.” 

David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012), of a 12-part lecture series titled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and of a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).