CONTACT: Taylor Pendergrass, ACLU Staff Attorney, 303-777-5482 x104
Today the ACLU of Colorado announced that it had reached a settlement agreement with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Jefferson County School District on behalf of Blake Benson, avoiding a potential lawsuit. The dispute arose when Jefferson County officials arrested Mr. Benson for displaying a “Nobama” message on a t-shirt prior to an after-school speech by Michelle Obama at Dakota Ridge High School.
Mr. Benson was a junior at the high school on November 3, 2008, when Michelle Obama came to speak at the school. As attendees lined up to enter the gymnasium, Mr. Benson stood near the school’s main entrance wearing a t-shirt with a “Nobama” sticker taped across the front. Dakota Ridge school officials ordered Mr. Benson to leave. When he refused, officials had Mr. Benson handcuffed, searched, and arrested for “interference,” a charge that carries up to six months in jail and a $750 fine. Mr. Benson was also give a one-day suspension by Principal Jim Jelinek, who stated in a notice of suspension that, “Blake was directed to cease politically protesting on school grounds.”
ACLU cooperating attorney Dan Recht represented Mr. Benson in the criminal case and in May 2009 Jefferson County officials confirmed that they would not pursue the criminal charge. “Jefferson County officials were wrong to censor the peaceful, purely political speech of a high school student just a day before a historic national election,” stated Taylor Pendergrass, staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado. “We should be encouraging civic engagement and political discourse in our high schools. Unfortunately, Jefferson County officials sent exactly the opposite message last November by arresting Mr. Benson for his expressing his political views.”
The Jefferson County School District and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office agreed to pay $2,000 each to settle claims that Jefferson County violated Mr. Benson’s free speech rights under the First Amendment and Article II Section 10 of the Colorado Constitution. Jefferson County officials do not admit to wrongdoing in the settlement agreement.
“What my teachers taught me about our constitutional rights wasn’t respected outside the classroom,” said Mr. Benson. “If one thing comes from this case, I hope it is that other students will learn more about their free speech rights and not be afraid to use them.”
Click here for a hi-res picture of Mr. Benson wearing his t-shirt on the day of the arrest.
About the ACLU of Colorado
The ACLU is a nationwide, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the principles of the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy and public education. The ACLU Foundation of Colorado works to protect the rights of all Coloradans.