Judge: District must let students wear slogans supporting gay rights

FLORIDA — The Holmes County School District must allowstudents to wear symbols and messages in school promoting gay rights, a federaljudge has ruled.

Heather Gillman, a junior at Ponce de Leon High School, sued the districtand Principal David Davis in January. Gillman — represented by theAmerican Civil Liberties Union — argued in her suit that school officialswere violating students’ First Amendment rights to free expression by barringstudents from wearing clothes with slogans or symbols advocating acceptance ofhomosexuality.

Gay rights became a hot issue at Ponce de Leon in September, after alesbian student complained to a staff member that she was being harassed byother students. According to the suit, Davis called the lesbian student into hisoffice, told her homosexuality was wrong and instructed her not to discuss hersexual orientation, particularly with middle school students on the campus,which houses grades 6-12.

This account of the meeting spread among other students, although thedistrict denies the allegations. Some students began writing slogans such as”Gay Pride” or “GP” on their arms in protest. A rumor also spread that anupcoming “morality assembly” would focus on condemning homosexuality and featurean anti-gay preacher, prompting some students to begin planning a walkout of theassembly. In fact, the assembly was about drinking and driving, and no walkoutoccurred.

But Davis began questioning students who wore the pro-gay rights slogansabout their activities and the proposed walkout, and 11* students ultimatelywere suspended, including Gillman’s cousin.

Soon after, Gillman wore several items intended to show her support for gayrights and opposition to Davis’ actions, including a rainbow belt and a T-shirtthat said “I support gays.” She wore the items for several days in September andwas not punished.

In November, the ACLU sent a letter on behalf of Gillman and her cousinasking the school district to clarify whether students who wore pro-gay rightssymbols would be punished. The letter listed 16 specific slogans and icons– such as “Gay Pride” and a rainbow flag — and asked which, if any,students were allowed to wear.

Brandon Young, the district’s lawyer, replied that students could wear noneof the items because “the types of clothing and symbols your clients seek towear to school will likely be disruptive and interfere with the educationalprocess.” Such items “were used and can further be used by select students toshow participation in an illegal organization,” Young wrote, noting the plannedwalkout. The district defines “illegal organizations” as “any attempt to use theschool day for activities that are not school related or school sponsored,”Young wrote.

The rumors about Davis’ opposition to homosexuality and the plans for thewalkout led a “a lot of chaos and disruption,” Steve Griffin, the districtsuperintendent, told the Student Press Law Center. Students were yelling gaypride slogans in the halls, making posters in class and otherwise beingdistracted from their classwork. Allowing students to wear the items listed inthe ACLU letter would have set off more disruptions, he said.

The district also argued in court that the gay-rights symbols and sloganscould be restricted because they could be viewed as sexually suggestive.

But U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak rejected those arguments after atwo-day trial last week, ruling May 13 that school officials did violateGillman’s rights. Although he noted that discussion of gay rights issues inSeptember had led to some minor disruptions and vandalism, a large part of “theclaimed interruption and disorder was really much the usual background noise ofa middle and high school,” he said, according to a draft transcript madeavailable by the ACLU. What disruption there was could just as likely have beenthe result of students’ “indignation” at Davis’ reported actions as a reactionto Gillman’s speech, Smoak said, and the school did not show it had tried toaddress the disruptions by less drastic means before restricting students’speech.

Smoak ordered the district to pay $1 in nominal damages and issued aninjunction prohibiting the district from punishing students for expressingsupport for gay rights or from retaliating against Gillman. The district alsomust inform students in writing of their free-expression rights, Smoak ordered.

The district already has sent out a letter to that effect, Griffin said. Hesaid the district was disappointed with the ruling and is considering its legaloptions. The district likely will decide whether to appeal the ruling within acouple of weeks, he said. In the meantime, the district will comply with thecourt’s order.

Gillman said she was excited to learn of the ruling and wore a T-shirt thenext day with the slogan “Gay? Fine by me.” A few other students wore similaritems. But the case and the issues surrounding it have not drawn as muchattention recently, and the school has mostly returned to normal, Gillmansaid.

Smoak’s ruling might provide support to students elsewhere, said ChristineSun, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual andTransgender Project. Students often face administrative opposition when seekingto form Gay Straight Alliance clubs or otherwise advocate for gay rights whilein school, she said.

“We’re extremely pleased that the court rejected the school district’scontention that it was inappropriate for students to express their support forgay civil rights at school,” Sun said.

CORRECTION, 7/30: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of students who were suspended. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story.