Court: Mich. school was wrong to exclude, censor student’s views on gays

MICHIGAN — A federal court ruled this monththat an Ann Arbor school violated a former student’s right to free speech whenschool officials denied the student an opportunity to give her opinion ofhomosexuality at a school forum on diversity.In his Dec. 5 ruling, U.S.District Judge Gerald Rosen wrote that officials at Pioneer High School failedto remain “viewpoint neutral” when they denied Betsy Hansen the ability to speakagainst homosexuality at a school-sponsored panel in March 2002. The panel waspart of Diversity Week, a series of events and talks on race, religion andsexual orientation. The panel, organized by the Gay/Straight Alliance,included six religious leaders who all expressed positive views ofhomosexuality. Hansen, who is Catholic, asked to join the panel to express anopposing viewpoint, but was denied.Instead, school officials allowed herto give a two-minute speech at a separate assembly. Hansen claimed in herlawsuit that school officials censored the speech after reading it prior to theevent because it argued that homosexuality is wrong. Rosen’s rulingrelied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1988 Hazelwood v.Kuhlmeier case. In Hazelwood, the Court ruled that a school cannotcensor students’ school-sponsored speech without a “legitimate pedagogicalconcern” and that the censorship must remain viewpoint neutral. Rosenrejected the claim by Ann Arbor Public Schools that its exclusion of Hansen fromthe panel and its censorship of her speech was an attempt to “promote toleranceand acceptance of minority points of view.””That the defendants can saywith apparent sincerity that they were advancing the goal of promoting’acceptance and tolerance …’ by their demonstrated intolerance for a viewpointthat was not consistent with their own is hardly worthy of serious comment,”Rosen wrote.Rosen also ruled that school officials violated theestablishment clause of the First Amendment because they chose the religiousleaders, provided the facility and audience for the religious discussion andcensored Hansen’s speech based on its religious viewpoint. The court also ruledthat the school abridged Hansen’s constitutional right to equal protectionbecause it allowed one group to deliver its message while denying Hansen theopportunity to deliver an opposing message.Rosen ordered the schooldistrict to pay damages, attorneys’ fees and costs to the Thomas More LawCenter, an Ann Arbor-based law firm that represented Hansen. The firm argues onbehalf of Christians in religious freedom cases.The firm was pleasedwith the ruling.”This is a tremendous victory for the First Amendmentrights of Christian students and a tremendous defeat for those who considerpublic schools as their private platform to advance the homosexual agenda,” saidRichard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center.Schooldistrict officials released a statement that said in part, “While the courtconcluded that school staff erred in their handling of this controversialmanner, the district applauds their continuing efforts to provide answers todifficult but important questions with which courts have struggled. The districtwill grow and learn from this situation.”Pioneer High School’s DiversityWeek, which the school sponsored for 10 years, was cancelled last year becauseof the lawsuit. It is unclear whether the school will hold Diversity Week thisyear. Hansen, now a student at the University of Florida, wasunavailable for comment.

Hansen v. Ann Arbor Public Schools, 2003 WL 22912029, No. 02CV72802DT (E.D. Mich. Dec. 5, 2003).