MIDDLEBORO, MASS. (WHDH) - A Middleboro student who was banned from wearing a shirt to school has lost his federal appeals case.

In 2023, the seventh grader at John T. Nichols Middle School was told he could not wear a shirt to class with the phrase “There Are Only Two Genders” printed on the front, as it was in violation of the school’s dress code.

The student was given the option of removing his shirt and returning to class or not returning to class. He chose the latter and no further action was taken by the school. The student has not been subject to any disciplinary measures by the school for any shirts he has worn to school or any views expressed while off school grounds, according to court documents.

According to the school’s dress code, “clothing must not state, imply, or depict hate speech or imagery that target[s] groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, or any other classification.” Carolyn Lyons, superintendent of the MIddleboro Public Schools System, explained to the student’s father that the shirt in question “was understood to ‘target students of a protected class; names in the area of gender identity.'”

An attorney for the then-seventh grader sent a letter to Lyons asserting the school had violated the student’s free speech rights, that the hate speech clause of the dress code was “facially unconstitutional”, and saying that the student would be wearing the shirt again, threatening legal action if the school interfered. The school replied saying the the student would continue to be prohibited from wearing the shirt.

This set off a barrage of attention on the situation and resulted in threatening and hateful messages, emails, and phone calls to school administration staff throughout the district, according to court documents. Supporters of the student also posted the school’s staff directory to X, formerly Twitter, with the caption “if you see these people in public, you know what to do”.

In response to this avalanche of aggressive messages, MIddleboro police were stationed at the school for a full week of classes.

The student did wear the shirt again, with the words “only two” covered by a piece of tape with the word “censored” written on it. The school again told him he could not wear the shirt, he took it off, and returned to class. Again he was subject to no disciplinary action.

The student then moved for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop the school from enforcing the dress code, both of which were denied by district court. Both parties then filed a joint motion for final judgment which was entered in Middleboro’s favor, thus allowing the student to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Over the weekend, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s earlier ruling siding with the school district:

“We conclude the record supports as reasonable an assessment that the message in this school context would so negatively affect the psychology of young students with the demeaned gender identities that it would ‘poison the educational atmosphere’ and so result in declines in those students’ academic performance and increases in their absences from school,” the appeals ruling stated.

In response to the ruling, the Massachusetts Family Institute, a faith-based non-profit who joined the cause in support of the student, said on X, formerly Twitter:

“This case is about much more than a t-shirt. The court’s decision is not only a threat to the free speech rights of public school students across the country, but a threat to basic biological truths. While we are disappointed in this decision, we aren’t done fighting yet.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom also argued in support of the student. A conservative Christian legal advocacy group that claims to challenge public school policies that “push false ideologies on students about human sexuality, race, and other controversial topics”, the ADF was also part of major U.S. Supreme Court rulings including Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which restricted access to abortion services.

The Massachusetts Family Institute said that they and the ADF are “reviewing all legal options, including appealing to the United States Supreme Court.”

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