Tennessee High School Affirms Students’ First Amendment Rights After Dispute Over Gay-Straight Alliance
Sequoyah High School Will Review Dress Code and Agrees That Student Is Allowed to Express Support for Club
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October 19, 2011
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MADISONVILLE, Tenn. – The Monroe County Board of Education agreed yesterday to allow students to wear T-shirts in support of the formation of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at the school. The board will also review its dress code to ensure that students’ right to free speech is protected. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee demanded that the board revise its policies after Sequoyah High School student Chris Sigler was reportedly harassed by students and staff for wearing a T-shirt supporting a GSA.
“A lot of kids get harassed at our school because they’re gay or they have gay friends, and we just want a space where we can all support each other and do something positive,” said Sigler. “We still want the GSA to be recognized as a club, but at least now the school won’t punish us for peacefully expressing our opinions.”
Last month, Sigler was reportedly physically and verbally harassed by Principal Maurice Moser for wearing a T-shirt in support of the club. Sigler has also reported harassment from fellow students.
Students in public high schools have a First Amendment right to express themselves through their clothing, as long as the messages they send do not cause a “substantial disruption” to instruction at school. Teachers and administrators may not censor student speech on the basis of its viewpoint or content. The ACLU asked Sequoyah High School to ensure that students in the future are permitted to express controversial viewpoints, such as pro- or anti-GSA messages, through their clothing.
“Public schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Preventing students from even discussing discrimination they’ve endured on campus is not only mean-spirited, it’s unconstitutional,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “We look forward to working with this and other schools in Monroe County to ensure that proper policies and practices are enacted and enforced to protect all students.”
GSAs are student-run extracurricular clubs that bring together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight students to support each other and promote tolerance, and are common in public school districts throughout Tennessee and across the country. The federal Equal Access Act says that public schools cannot discriminate against non-curricular clubs based on the viewpoint of the club.
Sigler and other Sequoyah students have been working to organize a GSA since the start of this school year. They collected more than 150 signatures on a petition to form the club. After other students circulated a petition opposing the club, Moser announced over the PA system that anyone discussing the GSA any further would be faced with punishment. The school has also refused to grant the GSA official recognition until a faculty member volunteers to act as its sponsor, and students say that a series of faculty members have expressed interest but then withdrawn from the effort after meeting with Moser.
“While it’s encouraging that the school district has vowed to review its dress code, Sequoyah High School still lacks a safe place where LGBT students and their peers can gather to support each other,” said Amanda Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “The events of the last few weeks show that the need for a GSA is greater than ever, and that the school needs to take seriously its obligation to protect all students from harassment and bullying.”