Fla. district must pay $325,000 for banning pro-gay symbols

FLORIDA — A federal judge ordered Holmes County School Boardto pay $325,000 in attorney fees in a ruling that said the principal at Ponce deLeon High School violated students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Ponce de Leon junior Heather Gillman sued the school district andthen-Principal David Davis in January, claiming Davis prohibited students fromwearing clothing, stickers and buttons supporting gay rights.

The students started the gay-rights movement at the school in September2007 after Davis criticized a senior who said middle school students harassedher because she is a lesbian. Davis told her that homosexuality is a sin, toldher to stay away from younger students and informed her parents she is alesbian, according to court documents.

Gillman and other students began wearing rainbows and pink triangles,writing “Gay Pride” or “GP” on their bodies and wearing clothing with sloganssuch as “Gay? Fine By Me,” “I’m Straight, But I Vote Pro-Gay,” and “God Loves MeJust the Way I Am.”

Davis then questioned students about their sexual orientation and suspended11 students, including Gillman’s cousin, for participating in the gay pridemovement.

“Davis embarked on what can only the characterized as a ‘witch hunt’ toidentify students who were homosexual and their supporters,” wrote U.S. DistrictJudge Richard Smoak in his written opinion, released July 24. Smoak issued hisoral ruling in May, after the two-day trial, along with a permanent injunctionordering the school to let students wear pro-gay symbols.

In a letter to the school board in November 2007, Gillman — througha lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union — listed 16 symbols and slogans and asked which ones studentswould be permitted to wear. In a reply letter, the school’s lawyer said allthose messages and symbols were prohibited because they “were used and canfurther be used by select students to show participation in an illegalorganization as defined by the School Board.”

Smoak applied a standard from a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case, Tinker v.Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said administratorscannot censor student speech unless there is a reasonable forecast of “materialand substantial disruption” to the school or unless the speech will invade therights of others.

“The Holmes County School Board has imposed an outright ban on speech bystudents that is not vulgar, lewd, obscene, plainly offensive, or violent, butwhich is pure, political, and expresses tolerance, acceptance, fairness, andsupport for not only a marginalized group, but more importantly, for a fellowstudent at Ponce de Leon,” Smoak wrote.

Smoak held that any disruption in the school was not a result of the”innocuous symbols and phrases at issue” but due to Davis’ “animosity towardstudents who were homosexual and his relentless crusade to extinguish the speechsupporting them.”

At trial, Davis testified that he believes homosexuality is a sin and anabomination that God will punish.

While Davis is entitled to his opinion of homosexuality, the exchange ofideas is crucial in a learning environment and he is not permitted to stiflespeech, Smoak wrote. The judge also pointed out that while rainbow symbols wereforbidden at the school, students were allowed to display swastikas and theConfederate flag. This clearly is viewpoint discrimination, he said.

“I find that students at Ponce de Leon, who were involved in the gay pridemovement, were simply taking prophylactic measures to counteract Davis’s illegalconduct in stifling their speech and support for their homosexual friends,”Smoak wrote.

Superintendent Steve Griffin gave Davis the option to work in the districtoffice or to teach. Davis chose to teach senior-level American government.

Griffin said there are multiple American government teachers, so Gillmanwill not necessarily have Davis as her government teacher this schoolyear.

Also, in response to the ruling, all teachers at the school are undergoingsensitivity training this summer, where they will learn about First Amendmentsrights and free speech, Griffin said.

“Our district is in full compliance with what the judge ruled,” Griffinsaid. “With training, our folks will receive information that will help themmake the right decisions. They will learn that we treat everybody the same wayand we have one set of rules for everybody.”