ACLU Says Officials Agree Not To Censor Student Displaying Pro-Gay Messages

Monday, April 19, 2010

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and Lambda Legal announced today that they have received assurances from officials at Greenbrier High School that the school will stop censoring a student from wearing shirts expressing pro-gay messages.

The ACLU said the school will also provide training on its anti-bullying policy to staff and students "to ensure that it is clear that harassment of any student, regardless of sexual orientation, is not acceptable."

“Students not only have a First Amendment right to be out at school, but the right to an education free from discrimination and harassment,” said Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU of Tennessee staff attorney. “We applaud the school for recognizing this and taking steps to ensure that they are providing a safe and equal learning environment for all students.”

The school’s move was prompted by negotiations with the ACLU of Tennessee and Lambda Legal on behalf of Cole Goforth, a Greenbrier High School freshman, and his mother, Julie Gordon. The student contacted the ACLU of Tennessee and Lambda Legal after he was sent home from school on April 5 for wearing a T-shirt that said, “I [Love] Lady Gay Gay” and told by school officials that he also could not wear a T-shirt in support of marriage equality because doing so and, apparently, wearing any shirt with a pro-gay message on it, was inherently “disruptive.”

The ACLU said the student "had long been subjected to daily anti-gay harassment at school, including threats of physical violence. Goforth was not only unable to get relief from the school, he was told by school employees that he had 'brought [harassment] on himself by coming out [as gay].'"

“Sending Cole home for wearing a shirt with the word ‘gay’ on it not only trampled this student’s right to freedom of expression, but also sent a destructive message to all students that there is something wrong with being gay or even saying the word ‘gay,’” said Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell. “We are pleased that school officials have recognized their obligation to respect pro-LGBT speech and to protect students from anti-gay harassment instead of allowing bullies to silence speakers.”

The ACLU said in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court held that students in public schools don't “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and ruled that schools can only censor student speech when the speech itself – and not other people's reaction to it – is disruptive to the educational process.

Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Tennessee "noted in discussions with the school that many schools have misinterpreted this notion, arbitrarily calling student speech disruptive in an attempt to illegally censor free speech. Furthermore, the organizations warned the school that attempting to use the harassment the student experienced at the hands of his peers as a justification for censoring his speech was illegal."

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