NASHVILLE — In a victory for free speech, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee announced a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Richland High School graduate Rebecca Young, who was censored by her school system for wearing a shirt to school supporting equality for lesbian and gay people. The Giles County school system has modified its discriminatory dress code policy that banned pro-LGBT speech.
“This is a victory not just for one student’s right to free speech, but for all students in the Giles County school system,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “Our settlement reinforces that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates. We are pleased that Giles County students will no longer face unjust censorship if they choose to express support for the LGBT community while at school.”
The lawsuit, Rebecca Young v. Giles County Board of Education, et al., stemmed from an incident on August 5, 2015, when Young wore a shirt to school that read, “Some People Are Gay, Get Over It.” At the end of the school day, the principal publicly reprimanded Young for wearing the shirt, telling her that she could not wear that shirt or any other shirt referencing lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender rights to school because it supposedly made her a target and provoked other students. Young had worn the shirt the entire day without incident.
ACLU-TN’s lawsuit argued that the school system’s clothing policy was an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on pro-LGBT speech, which violated Young and her peers’ First Amendment rights. A federal district court agreed, granting Young a preliminary injunction ordering the ban on pro-LGBT clothing lifted, and stating that “student expression on LGBT issues is speech on a purely political topic, which falls clearly within the ambit of the First Amendment’s protection.”
The Giles County Board of Education modified its dress code policy for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit, however the change in its discriminatory policy addressed Young’s concerns. The new dress code no longer singles out one type of speech for censorship.
“I just want my school to be a safe place for all students, free from harassment or discrimination,” Young said when the lawsuit was filed. “Wearing the shirt was a way to express my support for gay people and for treating them with respect. The censorship I experienced clearly shows why I felt the need to use my voice this way in the first place.”
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. In addition to Castelli, the Young family was represented by ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Mark J. Downton of Downton & Clark, PLLC.
ACLU-TN’s initial letter to Giles County Schools can be found here.