Liberty Justice Center

5 Things to Know About Principal Barton Thorne and His Case Against Shelby County Schools

March 4, 2021

Barton Thorne is a teaching veteran of nearly 20 years

Barton Thorne is the principal at Cordova High School in the Memphis-area, a high school that serves a diverse community including many low-income and minority students. Principal Thorne has been with Shelby County Schools (SCS) for nearly two decades, dedicating his career to helping the families and students within his community.


Principal Thorne was censored and put on leave for talking to his students about censorship.

Every Monday morning, Cordova High School’s daily announcement video features a “principal’s minute” where Thorne shares messages to inspire, educate, inform and challenge his high school students with broad themes and life advice from their principal.

After the tragic and disturbing events of January 6, 2021, our country experienced a teachable moment around the importance of free speech and the dangers of cancel culture and deplatforming as social media moderators reacted to the content of various accounts.

Principal Thorne used this moment to talk to his students about the importance of free speech in a democratic society. See the full transcript of his message. After a few anonymous complaints were lodged, Principal Thorne was subjected to an internal disciplinary investigation and placed on leave for almost two months without any resolution to his case.

“You may be in agreement with the people who are doing the filtering, but it’s just one moment away from somebody else being able to filter you. And so, if they can do that to a minority—or if they can do that to a powerful voice, it doesn’t have to be a minority—what will stop them one day from doing that to you?” — Principal Barton Thorne


The speech Thorne was disciplined for followed the school district’s guidelines.

One of the more disturbing aspects of Principal Thorne’s suspension was that his message was in full compliance with Tennessee’s standards for teaching social studies to high school students. It was also in line with the resources Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray had recommended for teaching about January 6 and its aftermath.

Principal Thorne’s message to his students took no political position. The focus was on helping his students think critically about how the position being taken by tech companies like Facebook and Twitter could impact their future and how it could impact free speech in the future.

“…Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Apple, are so powerful, and they have unilaterally made a decision of what you can and cannot see on their platforms, that’s a major issue and I want you to understand that. I want you to understand the problem that’s going to face you and your generation if there is no longer a marketplace, a free exchange of ideas.”

The only violation of Shelby County School guidelines was made by the district itself, when it breached Thorne’s contractual rights by placing him on administrative leave for teaching his students the classic American principles of free speech and democratic self-government.


Thorne has been reinstated as principal, but the case isn’t over.

Principal Thorne was put on administration leave January 12. After more than a month, and even after the Liberty Justice Center had reached out to the school district multiple times, Thorne had heard very little from school officials and had no resolution to his case.

It was only after he filed a lawsuit, Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education, on February 23 that Principal Thorne was reinstated.

But simply allowing Thorne to return to the position that he was wrongfully suspended from is not quite enough. Shelby County Schools needs to acknowledge the damage to Principal Thorne’s reputation and make sure that students know that his message was both appropriate and right — free speech is important in our society.

“We’ve got a pretty simple ask: we want Principal Thorne to be not just restored to his job, but restored to his reputation. And hopefully, the school district will do that, and then we can bring this case to a close.” — Daniel Suhr, Liberty Justice Center senior attorney


Cancel culture threatens everyone’s right to free speech.

It is not always pleasant to hear things that you might disagree with or discover that someone holds an opposing position. But every American should be concerned about a cultural trend to get rid of voices that disagree with popular viewpoints.

Cancel culture isn’t just stopping hate speech, it’s silencing legitimate speech protected by the First Amendment. Principal Thorne’s experience is a frightening example of this trend. Thorne warned his students that anyone’s voice can be cancelled for any reason by a small group of people. And Shelby County Schools silenced him for that.

Thorne’s message to his students is something everyone should take to heart: “Be aware, be in the loop as far as what’s going on. And not whether or not you agree or disagree with the people being filtered, but can this happen to you one day?”

Learn more about Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education.