High school students file suit after administrators censored anti-gay T-shirt, they say

ILLINOIS — Two high school students filed a lawsuit against their school district on March 21 claiming one student was told to remove her anti-gay T-shirt that read, “Be happy, not gay.”

A lawyer for Neuqua Valley High School senior Heidi Zamecnik and freshman Alexander Nuxoll filed the lawsuit, claiming that Zamecnik’s First Amendment rights were violated when administrators told her she could not wear the shirt because it was offensive. The lawsuit requests a preliminary and permanent injunction to permit her and other students to wear their T-shirts.

Zamecnik wore the T-shirt on April 20, 2006, in opposition to the nationwide observance of the “Day of Silence,” an annual protest that encourages students to visibly support homosexuality, but remain silent to support those who are discriminated against. Neuqua Valley students had been permitted to wear T-shirts for the “Day of Silence,” which is sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

According to the complaint, Zamecnik was taken to the office by a school official to meet with Dean of Students Bryan Wells, who said she had to change her shirt or she would be sent home because it “offended some students and faculty.” Zamecnik refused.

Wells then called Zamecnik’s mother, Linda Zamecnik, so the three could discuss the matter. They all agreed that the phase could be changed to, “Be happy, be straight” without being offensive. It was after this discussion that Wells went against the agreement by having a school counselor edit the message by marking out the words “not gay” to only leave the phrase, “be happy,” according to the complaint.

Superintendent Howard Crouse said that the T-shirt could have been disruptive and it violated the school dress code policy.

The Indian Prairie School District’s dress code policy states that, “A student’s dress and grooming must not disrupt the educational process, interfere with the maintenance of a positive teaching/learning climate” and that “no garments or jewelry with messages, graphics or symbols depicting weapons of which are derogatory, inflammatory, sexual, or discriminatory, will be worn at school.” The policy does not define these terms.

“I think our dress code is fairly clear for maintaining a safe and orderly atmosphere is paramount,” Crouse said. He also said that a T-shirt bearing a “pro” message is much different from that of an “anti” message in that negative expression is less tolerable.

“We believe the courts will side with us and that we find a resolution before that,” Crouse said.

Legal Counsel David French of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights organization, said that despite the message, the principal’s actions were not only unwarranted, but also illegal.

French said that his organization has represented many other students in similar cases.

“It’s incredibly discouraging to see this kind of volume of cases,” French said. “High schools tend to believe that when they have decided that something is right and something is wrong, that someone can be silenced.”

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer