ACLU wins settlement with Jeffco sheriff's office over Nobama shirt student

Conservatives like to portray the American Civil Liberties Union as a bunch of dangerous lefties with a decidedly progressive agenda rather than principles that transcend the politics of the moment.

But that argument was dinged today, when the ACLU's Colorado branch announced that it had reached a settlement with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in regard to Blake Benson, a student at Dakota Ridge High who was arrested and suspended for wearing a homemade "Nobama" banner on his shirt on a day when Michelle Obama was slated to speak at his school.

Back in May, authorities decided not to prosecute Benson -- and now, the ACLU has dropped plans for a potential lawsuit after the sheriff's office and the Jefferson County School District agreed to pony up $2,000 apiece by way of an apology. In this instance, apparently, we can all get along. Read the ACLU's account below:

ACLU resolves case on behalf of student arrested by Jefferson County officials for peacefully displaying a "Nobama" message on shirt prior to Michelle Obama pre-election speech

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 and suspended 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. 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."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts