September 27, 2023

Newton’s top seniors surprised by positive responses after they wore shirts protesting Iowa governor

Cardinals call out the governor for her school choice and education bills

From left: Leo Friedman and Marin Pettigrew turned heads at a recent scholarship ceremony after the two seniors of Newton High School wore T-shirts opposing the governor’s school choice and education bills. The interaction, which was streamed live, went viral on social media.

Leo Friedman and Marin Pettigrew expected a bit of backlash when their protest against Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds went viral last week at her scholarship ceremony, but the two graduating seniors of Newton High School received the exact opposite response, and it made them hopeful of the state’s future.

“A lot of teachers have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you’ or ‘You’re my hero,’” Friedman said, noting the past week of school he has received many comments about the subtle demonstration. “It’s been really cool to see that a lot of people have supported it. I haven’t received any personal backlash at all.”

Pettigrew added, “Same thing for me. I’ve gotten so many congratulations. It really opened my eyes! I didn’t realize so many people — especially in Newton — had similar beliefs about certain policies that I did. But there were a lot. Even teachers that I didn’t even think knew me came up and said something.”

When the students approached the governor for a handshake and photo op at the April 30 event in Des Moines, they did so wearing T-shirts critical of recent laws passed by the Iowa Legislature; Pettigrew’s said, “PUBLIC MONEY FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS,” while Friedman’s proclaimed, “I READ BANNED BOOKS.”

Earlier this year, Reynolds signed into law the Students First Act just weeks into the 2023 legislative session. The bill provides state funding to students whose families want them to attend private schools. But the law was met with harsh criticism, with many demanding public money only be used for public education.

The governor’s education bill — which has since passed the Senate and House — requires public school libraries to only have books that are considered age appropriate, meaning they cannot include material that describes or has visual depictions of a sex act. Critics have overwhelmingly called it a book ban.

As members of the Newton public school’s state championship winning Battle of the Books team, the two seniors felt their choice in shirts couldn’t be more fitting.

“We go to a public school, (Leo’s) mom is on the school board, lots of my friends are going to be teachers, my mentors are teachers, my coaches are teachers — Newton is such a big public education town as it is,” Pettigrew said. “So that just influenced by decision to wear that shirt, too.”


As their shirts suggested, both Friedman and Pettigrew are very much against the laws targeting public education this session, which finally came to a close this past week. So when they were invited to accept a certificate from the Iowa Governor’s Scholar Program, the two didn’t exactly jump to the occasion.

In fact, Pettigrew didn’t tell her parents about the ceremony until the day before, and Friedman was debating whether he would even go in the first place.

The scholar program was presented by the Iowa High School Athletic Association, title sponsor Iowa Farm Bureau and the governor’s office. The largest 64 schools in the state were invited to select their two highest academic achievers; all other schools were invited to selected one senior.

“When we get an email from our school saying, ‘Hey, you get to go meet the governor!’ that’s not exactly our dream, per se. Or at least it wasn’t mine. We were still kind of up in the air about going at that point,” Pettigrew said, adding they thought not showing up would also have been an acceptable protest.

But they also thought attending would leave a bigger impact.

Then, Friedman’s parents helped come up with the idea to wear shirts critical of the legislature. Pettigrew saw some online commenters admonished the parents, but she was adamant that she is an adult and can make her own decisions; the same can be said for Friedman, who is a few months shy of turning 18 years old.

“It’s not like they were telling me what to do,” Friedman said. “We still had the independence of what to wear, why to wear it. The day of (the ceremony) my dad even told me that I should have worn a button up over it and not shown it at all.”


When they finally arrived to the recognition ceremony — which honored 422 seniors this year — Pettigrew and Friedman were surprised by the amount of people had gathered in the Iowa Events Center. They soon realized their messages to the governor would be viewed by more people than just herself.

“We just wanted to send a message to the governor,” Friedman said. “We didn’t think anything would happen after it.”

Pettigrew added, “We had one person in mind with our shirts, and it was the governor. But then everyone else got it, I guess.”

Coupled with the live stream of the event, their message and their ensuing interactions with the governor spread across social media platforms. Videos on TikTok of the ceremony have amassed millions upon millions of views, and the two even got a shoutout from T-shirt company Raygun, who made the shirts.

Their stories were told alongside the protest of a Davenport West High School senior who exclaimed, “Trans rights are human rights.” According to a report by Des Moines Register’s Samantha Hernandez, the student’s name is Clementine Springsteen and she is a transgender woman.

While the two waited in line, Pettigrew recalled looking right at the governor. And the governor was looking right back at her, she said. There was no hiding the words on their shirts. Although she would like to say she was a little nervous, Pettigrew said she wasn’t and was trying to hold in a laugh.

“You could just tell on her face that she was not happy,” she said. “When she shakes Leo’s hand she glares at him. She doesn’t even smile for the picture.”

Friedman added, “And she stands like a foot away from both of us.”


Pettigrew wished her lawmakers would “stop thinking so much about the select few or serving their own self-interests” and to start thinking about the future and the people they will be representing now and in the years to come. Friedman recommended lawmakers go to the classrooms before making new laws.

“If they want to make decisions about our education, they need to get opinions from people who are in the education system right now. Or they need to go to a school and see what it actually is like,” Friedman said. “They have these pre-conceived notions that we’re teaching these banned books.”

Or making students believe certain things. Friedman said giving students knowledge is not forcing them to have a certain point of view. Pettigrew said it feels like lawmakers are creating straw men, or devising solutions for fabricated issues. The two seniors are frustrated with this approach.

Despite their disagreements with the legislative actions, Pettigrew and Friedman are filled with hope after receiving such positive comments about their protest.

Pettigrew said, “It definitely made me hopeful. I got messages from students who had just graduated or students who were younger than me. And they said they were proud of what we did and how we inspired them. I know some of the TikTok messages said, ‘Proof that our younger generation can make a difference.’”

Friedman and Pettigrew insist the younger generations are paying close attention to the actions of their lawmakers. The contentious and controversial bills being proposed or signed into law are not flying under the radar. Friedman said the beliefs and political activism of young people is “really strong.”

Pettigrew said, “Our generation has so much to work on. We’re just tired of the decisions that are being made for our futures that are not helping us. I don’t know why, but Gen Z likes to speak out against things. They aren’t really afraid. I’m glad we could kind of embody that a little bit.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.