Federal Judge Rules Against High School After It Paints Over Student’s Trump Mural

October 16, 2020 Updated: October 16, 2020

A federal judge recently ruled in favor of a Louisiana teenager, whose parking space mural of President Donald Trump was painted over by his high school for being “too political.”

Ned Thomas, a senior at Pine Junior-Senior High School, participated in August in the school’s program that allows seniors to pay $25 to paint an assigned parking spot the way they like it, so long as the painting does not include profanity, lewd images, or other students’ names. Thomas proposed to paint a portrait of Trump wearing a stars-and-stripes bandana and sunglasses, and was approved by the school’s principal.

After Thomas completed his parking space mural, however, Washington Parish School System officials decided that the image was “too political” and promptly covered it with gray paint. Washington Parish Superintendent Frances Varnado told The New Orleans Advocate that she was “concerned that the painting would cause further division and disruption among students.”

In an Oct. 9 ruling (pdf), U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon ordered the school district to allow Thomas to restore the mural, saying that Varnado’s decision to paint over the Trump portrait violated the teenager’s First Amendment rights.

“The painting of President Trump cannot reasonably be described as obscene or plainly offensive on its face, nor can it be construed as school-sponsored speech,” wrote Fallon, citing the 1969 Supreme Court ruling of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which declared that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Fallon said the district would be able to remove the painting only if “there is a showing of material and substantial disruption.” But without additional facts describing racial or political tensions at the school related to the upcoming election, “there is no evidence to support that the painting of President Trump would, on its own, cause disruption of school activities,” he added.

“This is not a case involving a symbol such as a Confederate flag, which has an established meaning as a ‘symbol of racism and intolerance, regardless of whatever other meanings may be associated with it,'” said Fallon, a Clinton appointee. “It is clear that school officials in this case acted based upon an urgent wish to avoid controversy which might result from the expression.”

“The Court finds that Defendants failed to demonstrate that a substantial and material disruption was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances if the Trump painting were to remain,” Fallon concluded. “Thus, the school’s removal of the painting restricting N.T.’s political speech cannot be justified.”

Thomas told The New Orleans Advocate that the mural was well liked by the community. In 2016, Trump won in Washington Parish County by 67 percent.

“I’ve seen nothing but support from the community and all around,” he said. “I didn’t think there would be any conflict, but the School Board thought otherwise.”