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New Jersey School Loses Lawsuit Over Redneck T-shirt

Aired May 20, 2003 - 20:48   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to show you a short clip of humorous Jeff Foxworthy, a well known comedian. See if you find his brand of what's known as redneck humor funny, or whether or not you think it might be offensive.

JEFF FOXWORTHY, HUMORIST: Rednecks thinks mutual funds means everybody's having a good time.

Sophisticated people have retirement plans. Rednecks play the lottery!

HEMMER: That is part of Jeff Foxworthy's act.

A couple of years ago, officials at a high school in New Jersey took offense when a student wore a t-shirt with Foxworthy's top ten reasons you may be a redneck sports fan.

Among those reasons, "Your mama is banned from the front row at wrestling matches." That's on the shirt.

"Your bowling team has its own fight song."

"You think the bud bowl is real."

"You wear a baseball cap to bed at night."

And No. 1 -- "If you've ever told your bookie 'I was just kidding.' "

Thomas Sypniewski, Jr. was arrested and suspended -- rather -- for wearing that shirt. He sued and won,

The school board appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This week, it lost. The Justices refused to take that case, and the school board attorney tells CNN and, quoting now, "We were rather surprised that the court would not hear our case, but this is only a preliminary matter, and we could still go to trial on it." That's a quote from the school.

While they are deciding, we're going to talk tonight with Thomas Sypniewski, Jr. and his attorney, Gerald Walpin, joining us live in New York.

Thanks for make the trip from New Jersey. Do you have the t- shirt, right? GERALD WALPIN, ATTORNEY: I sure do.

THOMAS SYPNIEWSKI, JR.:That's the one.

WALPIN: That's the one that's got all the fuss right now.

SYPNIEWSKI: That's it.

HEMMER: Can you see how some people might be offended by this?

SYPNIEWSKI: Not at all.

HEMMER: Why not?

SYPNIEWSKI: There's nothing offensive about it. They were saying it was a racist t-shirt. Look at the t-shirt. Nothing racist about it.

HEMMER: Do you consider yourself a redneck?

SYPNIEWSKI: Absolutely.

HEMMER: You do? You would openly admit to that?

SYPNIEWSKI: Absolutely.

HEMMER: You're 20 years old?

SYPNIEWSKI: Twenty years old.

HEMMER: What do you say to those in the school, though, who say "You know what? It's just taking too much offense here right now on this?

SYPNIEWSKI: It never caused any problems in the school whatsoever. The day I was called down to the office, I told the principal himself -- the vice principal -- if this shirt offends anyone, get the person and I'll take the shirt off.

HEMMER: You said that to the vice principal?

And they said ...?

SYPNIEWSKI: And he said to me "Well, it offends me."

I said, "Mr. Griffith, it does not offend you." I said, "You're just trying to cause problems for me."

HEMMER: Let me ask you a question. Is he white or black?

SYPNIEWSKI: He's a white man.

HEMMER: There are 60 black students, and the school had expressed some concern that perhaps this was a southern reference that might be offensive to them, and they were trying to take a precautious measure on this, be a bit conservative and say, "You know what? We don't want to have this around here."

How did you respond to that?

SYPNIEWSKI: It never caused a problem before. There was never a student that complained about it. There was never any controversy over the shirt until the day when that security guard, if you call him that, hauls me down to the office.

WALPIN: Bill, the fact is that this shirt had been worn by Tom and his two brothers for a period of over two years. Not one person had objected to it, and there was no disruption in the school whatsoever.

This came out of blue. And to suggest that the word redneck is anti-African-American makes no sense.

HEMMER: When it went to the Supreme Court, highest court in the land, what was your reaction?

SYPNIEWSKI: I was shocked. I also said to myself, "Well, if we end up going to Washington, D.C., it is going to be a good experience." But we didn't end up going there.

HEMMER: When the Supreme Court turned it away, you said what?

WALPIN: I expected that because the Supreme Court had spoken previously about the rule of law here, and the circuit court of appeals which had decided for us was just applying the Supreme Court's previous rulings.

HEMMER: You're out of high school right now?


HEMMER: What's been the reaction among your peers? Any fallout from it?

SYPNIEWSKI: They've all been pretty much backing me. No one agreed with the school when it happened. They're all pretty much for me.

HEMMER: You have two younger brothers?


HEMMER: In the same high school?

SYPNIEWSKI: Yes. Warren Hills.

HEMMER: They're going to wear this shirt?

SYPNIEWSKI: They have worn shirts like it already.

HEMMER: And the reaction to them was what?

SYPNIEWSKI: Nothing. No disruption. HEMMER: We might be able to say this is behind us tonight, but apparently the school may fight it longer. Have you heard anything from them?

WALPIN: I have not, and I have to say to the school that it makes absolutely no sense to use taxpayer's money that should be used for the students' education to pay lawyers.

HEMMER: If nothing else, we've given Jeff Foxworthy a lot of publicity for free.

Gerald Walpin, Thomas Sypniewski, Jr., thanks for coming in tonight.

SYPNIEWSKI: Thank you.


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