NEW YORK — The Spencer-Van Etten Central School Districtagreed to make a public statement supporting students’ right to wear T-shirtswith controversial messages, satisfying demands made by civil libertiesadvocates after a student was punished for wearing a shirt supporting gayrights.
Heathyre Farnham, a 16-year-old student at Spencer-Van Etten High School,was sent home Sept. 21 because Principal Ann Sincock believed Farnham’s T-shirt– which read “gay? fine by me” — would spark a disruption byprompting anti-gay responses.
District officials, including school district attorney Jim Young, lateracknowledged that Sincock’s action was a mistake and that Farnham’s T-shirt wasa form of protected expression. Barrie Gewanter, director of the Central NewYork chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, pressed the school board atan Oct. 23 board meeting to issue an apology to Farnham and a public statementto students that district schools would respect students’ free-expressionrights.
The school board did not grant either request at the meeting. But afterfurther negotiations with the NYCLU, the district agreed to both. According to aDec. 6 NYCLU press release, a Nov. 2 message read over the high school’s publicaddress system said the school dress code “does not prohibit students fromdisplaying controversial or political messages,” and that among the “wide range”of acceptable messages are those “supportive of lesbian, gay bisexual andtransgender people.” The announcement did note that the dress code bans obsceneor profane words and images, as well as messages promoting the use of drugs,alcohol or tobacco.
Sincock also apologized to Farnham privately, Farnham told the StudentPress Law Center.
Superintendent Steven Schoonmaker declined to comment on the details of theagreement, saying only that the issue had been resolved.
“Everyone seems to be happy and we’re going to go back to educatingchildren,” he said.
Farnham said she is satisfied with the resolution of the controversy.
“It wasn’t storybook, but it turned out OK,” she said, adding that”everything’s pretty much back to normal.”
Gewanter said the public statement directly to students was important todispel the chilling effect of Farnham’s initial punishment.
“You can’t cure the chill of censorship with silence,” Gewanter said.Farnham’s punishment was troubling not only because it infringed on students’free-speech rights, but also because censoring a message supportive of gay andlesbian students called the school’s support for those students into question,Gewanter said.
“We are very happy that the school district decided to cure the message ofcensorship with a message of tolerance,” she said.
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