Despite partial settlement, ‘Be Happy, Not Gay’ T-shirt case continues

ILLINOIS — The school district involved in a nearly four-year-long case over a controversial student T-shirt message argued its latest appeal last month before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Nate Kellum, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group, said a decision is expected within the next six months, following the Jan. 19 oral argument before a three-judge panel.

Neuqua Valley High School freshman Alexander Nuxoll and senior Heidi Zamecnik filed a lawsuit against Indian Prairie School District claiming their First Amendment rights were violated after Zamecnik was told to remove her “Be Happy, Not Gay” T-shirt in April 2006.

Zamecnik wore the shirt in opposition to the annual, nationwide “Day of Silence,” which supports gay rights. Students participating in the “Day of Silence” were permitted to wear T-shirts or stay silent throughout the day in protest of LGBT harassment.

According to the original complaint filed in March 2007, Zamecnik was told by Dean of Students Bryan Wells she must change her shirt or be sent home after administrators heard complaints from students and teachers. When she refused, Zamecnik’s mother was called. The three decided the saying would be changed to “Be Happy, Be Straight”; however, the complaint said the shirt was changed to say “Be Happy.”

School officials maintained the T-shirt violated the school dress code and could have been disruptive.

Nuxoll joined the case indicating that he wanted to wear a similar message at a future “Day of Silence” but was told he would be prohibited from doing so.

On April 23, 2008, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court decision and granted Nuxoll an injunction allowing him to wear a similar T-shirt while the case was ongoing.

The students and attorneys for the school district reached a partial settlement in October, in which the school board agreed to amend the student handbook and district dress code policies to prevent infringement of First Amendment rights. In return, the students were to dismiss some parts of the case, including a damages claim against Wells.

The school is appealing the parts of an April 29, 2010, summary judgment that found Zamecnik and Nuxoll were entitled to $25 each in nominal damages and an injunction allowing them to display the “Be Happy, Not Gay” message.

The school’s appeal contends that the numerous “emotional, violent and/or threatening reactions” to the T-shirt made it disruptive. It also mentions the growing school system problem of dealing with bullying.

While the former Neuqua Valley High School students were awarded nominal damages, Kellum said that was not the important part of the case.

“For Heidi and Alex, it’s not about money. It never has been,” he said. “It’s about principle and that their constitutional rights were violated.”