Civil rights organization calls on Alabama high school to stop censoring student’s speech in support of gay rights
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has sent a letter to to Brookwood High School (BHS), the Tuscaloosa County School Board, and the school system’s superintendent demanding that they respect students’ constitutional rights or face a federal lawsuit, says al.com. According to SPLC’s letter, BHS student Elizabeth Garrett was forced to remove a sweatshirt she was wearing because school officials believed its message supporting gay rights was potentially disruptive. The letter also seeks to overturn a policy prohibiting same-sex dates at the school prom.
“At Brookwood, like in too many Alabama schools, gay students and those perceived as gay face unfair treatment,” said Sam Wolfe, an SPLC attorney, according to a press release. “Too often, gay students also face serious harassment at school. No student should be singled out for unfair treatment or be denied their basic rights at school.”
In the letter, the SPLC gives the school district until Feb. 1 to stop its censorship of speech supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and its prohibition against same-sex couples at the prom. If the school district does not comply with those demands, the SPLC will file a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction, damages and attorneys’ fees. Garrett, a 10th grader at BHS, wore a hooded sweatshirt with the slogan, “Warning, This Individual Infected With ‘The Gay,’ Proceed With Caution” to express her support of gay people. A BHS school official demanded she remove the sweatshirt, claiming it was distracting. Garrett was released to class only after she removed the hoodie and placed it in her backpack, according to SPLC. The same administrator reportedly told Garrett that same-sex couples would not be permitted to attend the school’s prom in May. Garrett said she plans to attend the prom with another female BHS student.
The SPLC’s letter to BHS contends that students’ statements supportive of LGBT people as well as attending prom with a same-sex date are protected under the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution. The letter cites federal court precedents, including a ruling that struck down a school board’s ban on clothing expressing support for LGBT people as unconstitutional. In that case, the school had to pay $325,000 for the students’ legal fees, the SPLC said. The letter further explains that if there are students who will act disruptively in reaction to Garrett’s hoodie or her attending the prom with a girl, BHS has a duty to counter the disruptive students, not prohibit her speech and rights as a citizen.
Source: al.com, 1/25/12, By Ben Flanagan
[Editor's Note: SPLC's demand letter contends BHS’s censorship of Garrett’s speech and its refusal to permit same-sex dates at the prom violates both the First and Fourteenth Amendments and must immediately cease. In support of its claim that refusal to permit same-sex dates at the prom violates the constitution, SPLC said, "The school’s prevention of same-sex couples from attending prom is similar to a case decided by a federal court in Mississippi, McMillen v. Itawamba Cnty. School Dist., 702 F. Supp.2d 699 (N.D. Miss. 2010)." The letter notes that in McMillen the court held that the student’s effort to “communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and to express her identity through attending prom with a same-sex date” was “the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment.” In response to BHS officials' contention that Garrett's speech runs afoul of the substantial disruption standard established in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), SPLC's letter argues, "If the denial of Elizabeth’s rights to freedom of expression were out of concern that other students would behave disruptively, your school has allowed those disruptive students to exercise a 'heckler’s veto' over Elizabeth’s free speech rights. The First Amendment does not permit such an outcome."
In March 2010, Legal Clips provided a summary of the district court opinion in McMillen, which held that a school district that refused to allow a lesbian student to attend prom with a same-sex date and wearing gender non-conforming attire, i.e. a tuxedo, violated that student’s First Amendment rights. However, the court refused to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the school district to sponsor the prom, as plans were in place for a parent-sponsored event.]