Gagged: T-shirt settlement kept quiet

Fred Newsom had predicted this might happen. He and his son, eighth-grader Alan Newsom, settled a $150,000 First Amendment lawsuit against the Albemarle County School Board– with a nondisclosure agreement.

Before entering mediation January 22, Fred Newsom said, "I think it's wrong to take a Michael Jackson position– to take the money and shut up." He was referring to Jackson's early 1990s settlement of a lawsuit alleging molestation.

"I personally think it's very ironic," says Newsom's lawyer, Dan Zavadil, of the settlement of the free speech case.

The parties finally reached agreement February 20. "We feel pretty good about it," says Fred Newsom, while declining to discuss how much the county had to pay. "I'm satisfied with the settlement."

Now 13, Alan Newsom lodged his suit in 2002 when he was a sixth grader at Jack Jouett Middle School. The assistant principal told him to wear his new NRA shooting safety camp t-shirt inside out because its silhouettes of men holding guns violated school policy.

The NRA took his case, and on appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Jouett's dress code was "unconstitutionally overbroad," to the extent that even UVA's crossed-sabers logo would not be allowed.

Once it was clear Albemarle was on the losing end of the lawsuit, the parties went to mediation, which Zavadil describes as "very difficult," with "a lot of attitude going back and forth."

On February 20, this statement was released:

"The parties have reached a mutually acceptable resolution of this case. By this resolution, the parties recognize the rights and responsibilities of the students in the school system, and the School Board's continued support for its teachers and administrators. The Jouett Handbook is being amended to reflect the current state of the law."

The Newsoms' suit sought $100,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages. They also wanted to collect legal fees, which the NRA put in excess of $127,000 in mid-January.

Nondisclosure of a settlement is fairly common, even in freedom of expression cases, says John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute.

"That's why people will settle– they don't want the public to know how much they paid," he says.

"That case didn't look like a winner to me," adds Whitehead. "I think Albemarle should really look at their policy and who they're really trying to punish– the kids who bring guns to school, not kids wearing t-shirts."

Albemarle deputy attorney Mark Trank declined to discuss either the settlement or the irony of the gag on how much the county had to cough up.

He did describe the new Jouett policy as "more specific," incorporating more of the 1969 Supreme Court Tinker v. Des Moines decision that protects students' freedom of expression unless it's substantially disruptive.

Where before the school had a blanket ban on images of weapons, the new policy prohibits messages or images "that involve or depict weapons used or displayed in an unlawful, violent, or threatening manner... that would tend to have a substantial or material disruptive effect on the educational environment in the reasonable judgment of school administrators."

As for Newsom's controversial shirt, "He can wear it," says Trank.

Alan Newsom is happy his legal battle has drawn to a close. "I guess sometimes you have to fight for your rights, even though they're rights," he says.

So what's next? Newsom isn't going to Disneyland, but he has been invited to the NRA's national convention in Pittsburgh in April.

Except for having to be on stage in front of thousands of Second Amendment advocates, "He's pretty excited," says Fred Newsom, "because the vice president is going to be there."

And unlike the settlement terms of the lawsuit, the location of Alan's encounter with the elusive Dick Cheney can be revealed.

Alan Newsom can't say how much Albemarle County had to pay for violating his First Amendment rights at Jack Jouett Middle School.