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School Censorship, Justice and LGBT Rights

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August 21, 2009

When I was in the 10th grade at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a public high school in Birmingham, the administration banned a t-shirt with the words, “Gay? Fine by Me.” I was shocked that this was happening at my school, an institution with a seemingly liberal and open arts culture. I knew this threatened the use of free speech and dialogue in art, culture and the classroom, and that something had to be done.

I researched free speech rights, students’ rights, and non-discrimination laws. Despite an overwhelming body of similar cases and the First Amendment supporting me, the administration didn’t budge. After months of meetings, I called the ACLU and explained my problem. After the ACLU wrote the administration of my school, they immediately reversed the policy, suddenly realizing they lacked legal authority to censor students.

The significance in the story above is a deep understanding of justice from small censorship cases to more destructive discriminatory laws, such as adoption bans and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This summer, as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT and AIDS Project, I’ve reviewed cases that challenge same-sex adoption bans and proofread court briefs. These tasks show the broad spectrum of experiences where rights have been taken away or never existed. My conversations with lawyers and activists were the best part of the experience, because they introduced me to how the law could protect and save people from discrimination and ensure liberties.

Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage my freshman year of high school and since then state laws have begun to slowly change After five years, 15 states and the District of Columbia recognize same sex relationships in a variety of ways; leaving 35 states with no recognition. Further, 29 states restrict marriage to a man and woman, and many have laws that threaten to not honor same-sex relationships in any way.

My experience at the ACLU highlighted how important justice was. After completing this opportunity, I will continue to explore concepts of justice, crime and punishment to inform my personal legal philosophy. As an undergraduate, I’ve studied international law, legal philosophy and economics, and hope to attend law school in the future to work for a more equal society.

As I spent my summer interning at the LGBT and AIDS Project, I am reminded of why I felt so angered in high school. Whether I am proofreading a brief, researching legal precedent or studying cases, I am assisting the work of a cause much larger than myself. I am increasingly aware of the discriminatory laws — Proposition 8, DOMA — and the marginalizing of transgender individuals and people with HIV. During the above experience in high school, my peers and I were personally discriminated against and marginalized. Now that I am more informed, I am working for a cause larger than myself and giving back to the same community that helped me in the past.

Just in time for the new school year, the ACLU has released a new letter to principals and educators about LGBT-related censorship. If you find yourself in a similar situation to Elizabeth, download and print the letter and give it to your school. If they still want to censor you, contact us!

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