California middle schooler banned from sports over ‘blackface,’ but group says it was just eye paint

A California middle school student was recently suspended and barred from attending future sporting events in the school district after being accused of wearing blackface at a football game.

The Oct. 13 incident that resulted in the student’s suspension – first brought to the public’s attention by the popular X account Libs of TikTok – took place at a high school football game between La Jolla High School and Morse High School.

The student – identified as J.A. for privacy reasons by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to defending freedom of speech – reportedly wore black face paint under his eyes for the game, leading to backlash from the principal of Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla.

One week after the game, FIRE, which intervened in the matter in an effort to protect the student, said the principal called J.A. and his parents to a meeting, where he told them the student would face a two-day suspension and barred from attending future athletic events for wearing blackface.


Student J.A. is shown wearing eye black at a high school football game.

The disciplinary notice obtained by FIRE described J.A.’s alleged offense as “painted his face black at a football game” and categorized the incident as “Offensive comment, intent to harm.”

In a letter to the school’s principal, FIRE expressed concern over the school’s handling of the situation and called for a reversal of the decision.

“As the First Amendment protects J.A.’s non-disruptive expression of team spirit via a style commonly used by athletes and fans — notwithstanding your inaccurate description of it as ‘blackface’ — FIRE calls on the school to remove the infraction from J.A.’s disciplinary record and lift the ban on his attendance at future athletic events,” the group wrote. “J.A.’s appearance emulated the style of eye black worn by many athletes … Such use of eye black began as a way to reduce glare during games, but long ago evolved into ‘miniature billboards for personal messages and war-paint slatherings.’”

“J.A. wore his eye black throughout the game without incident,” FIRE added in the letter.

Referring to the school’s “frivolous” claim that J.A.’s face paint constituted blackface, FIRE said the student was only following “a popular warpaint-inspired trend” used by athletes in recent history.


Eye black sporting events

Referring to the school’s “frivolous” claim that J.A.’s face paint constituted blackface, FIRE said the student was only following “a popular warpaint-inspired trend” used by athletes in recent history. (Getty Images)

“Blackface is ‘dark makeup worn to mimic the appearance of a Black person and especially to mock or ridicule Black people.’ It has its origins in racist minstrel shows that featured white actors caricaturing black people, and generally entails covering the entire face in dark makeup and exaggerating certain facial features,” the group said. “By contrast, J.A. followed a popular warpaint-inspired trend of athletes applying large amounts of eye black under their eyes, which has no racial connotations whatsoever.”

In its defense of J.A., the group also pointed to a significant Supreme Court case ruling that defined First Amendment rights of students in U.S. public schools.

“In the seminal student speech case Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court held the First Amendment protected public school students’ right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The Court made clear school officials cannot restrict student speech based on speculative, ‘undifferentiated fear’ that it will cause disruption or feelings of unpleasantness or discomfort among the student body. Rather, Tinker requires evidence that the speech has or will ‘materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school,'” FIRE said.

“There is no evidence J.A.’s face paint caused a disruption — let alone a material and substantial one — at the football game or at school afterward,” the group added. “The complete lack of disruption is unsurprising, as the sight of fans in face paint is familiar to and expected by anyone who has ever attended a football game or other sporting event.”

black face paint

Yale’s Sterling Strother is shown with eye black. (Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated)


FIRE requested a response to its letter, which was also sent to local school district officials, no later than Nov. 22. The group also called on Muirlands Middle School to reaffirm its “commitment to its binding First Amendment obligations.”

The San Diego Unified School District did not immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.

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