NEW YORK — A New York Civil Liberties Union representativeattended a school board meeting Oct. 23 to try and reach an agreement with thedistrict on how to address the principal’s “mistake” insending home a student wearing a shirt with the message “gay? fine byme.”
Spencer-Van Etten High School Principal Ann Sincock sent the student,16-year-old Heathyre Farnham, home on Sept. 21 because she thought it wouldinvite other students to wear anti-gay T-shirts and cause a disruption, said JimYoung, the school board’s attorney.
The incident dates back to Sept. 21 when Farnham wore the T-shirt toschool. She said it was the third time she wore the shirt.
“The principal came up to me at lunch and said it was inappropriateand disruptive… No one was screaming or yelling about it; I wouldn’tcall it disruptive,” Farnham said. “Everyone was stilllearning.”
The school board’s attorney agrees that the shirt was notdisruptive. The principal did not interpret the laws regarding studentexpression correctly, Young said.
“The young lady had a right to wear it,” he said.
Sincock could not be reached for comment.
A month after Sincock sent Farnham home, the school board invited parents,students and community members to discuss the T-shirt issue at a school boardmeeting.
“When you enact censorship like this, it puts a chilling effect onthe student body,” said Barrie Gewanter, Central New York chapter directorfor the NYCLU. “We wanted to make sure this would not happenagain.”
Gewanter and Young came to an agreement on most issues, most importantlythat Farnham’s shirt is legally protected speech and that theprincipal’s actions were “based on a total misunderstanding of astudent’s right,” Gewanter said.
The two lawyers met with the school’s faculty to discuss the lawsregarding student expression for more than an hour, Young said.
While Gewanter said it was “positive” that the district allowedher to address the staff, she said she still is concerned because of otherclaims of censorship that continue to surface.
Specifically, she said another student wore a shirt similar toFarnham’s but changed the message slightly and was told to removeit.
The other T-shirt said “lesbo? fine by me,” said CharlesClemens, the acting superintendent. Clemens came to the district two weeks afterthe incident to fill in for the superintendent, who is out on sick leave.
“The principal thought the word ‘lesbo’ wasoffensive,” he said. “If it were ‘lesbian’, that wouldbe fine.”
But Gewanter said this incident shows that the censorship issues are notsettled.
“The district says it has been addressed,” Gewanter said.”We don’t share that confidence.”
Young said that the courts have ruled that administrators can only censorsomething that is vulgar, promotes drug or alcohol use, causes a disruption or”is insulting or degrading to a protected class.”
For example, a “gay bashing” shirt or a shirt againstAfrican-Americans would not be tolerated, he said. Young said that some shirtswith anti-gay messages, such as a shirt that read “gay? not fine byme,” still would be constitutionally protected.
Tuesday’s school board meeting gave Gewanter a chance to air herconcerns and ask for the board members to publicly state they would address theissue with students, she said.
“The school board decided they would not comply with our strongrequest for the school to send a message to the students that they have theFirst Amendment rights to display messages on their T-shirt and that lesbian andgay messages were okay,” she said.
School Board President James Loomis said there will be furtheradministrative action on some of the NYCLU recommendations, but board action wasnot deemed necessary.
Clemens said the school is working to create a First Amendment andsensitivity training session for the students. He was not at the board meetingand could not comment about the school board’s actions.
But Farnham’s mother, Brynda Beeman, said she feels the school boarddoesn’t seem to understand that the school violated the First Amendment.She is concerned about their lack of comment directly to the students.
Beeman said she is also upset that the school is saying different things tothe media and public than what they are telling her.
When Beeman called the principal the day her daughter was sent home, shesaid the principal told her the problem with the shirt was that it was”advertising sexual preference.”
Young said the school board will review its policies regarding studentexpression to make sure they are clearly written. He said the board wanted toensure that an administrator reading the policy would not make another mistakeand incorrectly interpret the law.
Farnham said she is seeking an apology.
Young said the student will be told she had the right to wear the shirt,although he was not sure when or where this would take place or if the principalwould apologize.
“I don’t deal with apologies, I deal with the law,” hesaid.
Gewanter said she will discuss the matter with other NYCLU attorneys andconsider different options. She said she discussed the possibility of takinglegal action with the student and her mother, but she preferred to reach anagreement without litigation.
Beeman said her daughter, who is not gay, might not be able to stay atSpencer because of the hostility she has received from individuals who disagreewith the “gay? fine by me” message.
She said her main concern is that the administration will not discuss theissue with the student body, although school officials indicated to the StudentPress Law Center that they were looking into this.
“The faculty did not experience a chill, the administration did notexperience a chill, it’s the students,” she said. “What theyare insisting on is silence vis a vis the student, and you can’t curecensorship with silence.”