High school junior sues Fla. district over ban on pro-gay rights symbols

FLORIDA — A Ponce de Leon High School junior is suingthe Holmes County School Board, alleging that her principal violated herfree-speech rights by intimidating her and other students who wanted to publiclysupport gay rights.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, alleges that Principal David Davis toldseveral students who were wearing rainbow belts and shirts and writing pro-gayexpressions on their hands that supporting gay and lesbian rights wasimpermissible at the school. Davis suspended several of the students, leadingjunior Heather Gillman to question what expressions the school board prohibits.

Benjamin James Stevenson, a Florida ACLU attorney representing Gillman,sent a letter to the school board asking for guidance on what was regarded aspermissible speech. The letter included 16 examples of phrases, symbols andimages, such as “I Support My Gay Friends,” “GP [GayPride]” and “Pro-Gay Marriage,” and asked which if any of thesymbols or phrases students could wear at school.

Brandon J. Young, anattorney for the school board, replied in a Nov. 12 letter that none of thesymbols or phrases would be allowed. The letter said that, although the schoolboard does not restrict pro-gay or anti-gay expression as such, school policybars students from wearing anything “that may reasonably disrupt andinterfere with the educational process of that student or other students.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 ruling in Tinker v.Des Moines Independent Community School District, courts have ruled thatschool officials generally cannot restrict independent student expression unlessthey have specific evidence that the expression in question would “materially and substantially” disrupt the school or invade therights of others. In Tinker, for example, the Court ruled thatadministrators could not ban students from wearing black armbands to protest theVietnam War.

Young’s letter said the pro-gay rights symbols andmessages worn by Gillman and other students “were used and can further beused by select students to show participation in an illegal organization asdefined by the school board. Please remember that many of the students thatpreviously were wearing ‘G.P.’ on their skin and clothing admittedto planning a walk-out and protest of a school assembly at Ponce de LeonSchool.”

Gillman’s lawsuit acknowledges that students planned awalk-out but notes that the protest never took place.

In a written statementreleased from the Holmes County School District, Superintendent Steve Griffinsaid, “The School Board’s primary mission is the delivery of ahigh-quality education to each and every student … in order to achieve thisand enhance the student’s ability to learn, the educational environmentmust be free of distraction and disruption. We also support anindividual’s Constitutional rights of freedom of speech andexpression.”

The Ponce de Leon High School Student Code of Conduct, inits policy banning illegal organizations, prohibits “any attempt to usethe school day for activities that are not school related or school sponsored.Students shall not wear any color, clothing, insignia, emblem or jewelry orother object in such a matter as to indicate membership or association with anysecret organization.”

Florida state law prohibits K-12 students inpublic schools from forming secret or closed societies.

But Stevenson saidapplying that rule in Gillman’s case is a stretch.

“I appreciatethat the school board is trying to implement Florida law … but they’vetried to use this strange definition of an illegal organization to justifyprohibiting the expressions in support of gay and lesbian people,” hesaid.

Stevenson said the school district has 20 days to respond to thecomplaint, filed yesterday. The complaint asks the court for an injunction toprohibit school officials from suppressing students’ First Amendmentrights. Among other things, the suit also asks for $1 in nominal damages,attorney fees and a declaration that the school violated Gillman’s rights.