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Respect for Gay People in Schools: A New Lawsuit in Florida and A Victory in Massachusetts

Chris Hampton,
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February 1, 2008

Yesterday brought big news in terms of the ACLU’s work on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender schools issues, with one case coming to an end in Massachusetts and a new one being filed in Florida. While the two cases cover different ground, both deal with efforts to erase LGBT content from schools.

Ponce de Leon is a small town of about 500 in the Florida panhandle. Problems at the local high school began in September when a lesbian student went to school officials to ask for their help because she was being harassed by other students. Instead of addressing the harassment, students say school officials responded by routinely intimidating and censoring students for things like writing “gay pride” on their arms and notebooks or wearing rainbow-themed clothing.

The ACLU sent a letter to the school district on behalf of junior Heather Gillman asking for clarification as to whether a variety of symbols and slogans, such as the rainbow flag or “I support my gay friends,” would be allowed at the school. Heather wants to wear a homemade T-shirt in support of her lesbian cousin, who is also a student at her school.

The school district replied defiantly, saying that it would not allow any expressions of support for gay rights whatsoever because such speech would “likely be disruptive” – although it seems pretty clear that the only disruption going on at Ponce de Leon High School was being caused by the school’s reaction to perfectly constitutional student speech. The district then went a step further, claiming that such symbols and slogans were signs that students were part of a “secret/illegal organization.”

Yesterday, the ACLU filed Gillman v. Holmes County Board of Education, asking a federal court for an injunction to stop Ponce de Leon High School officials from suppressing students’ First Amendment rights in the future. We hope that Heather will win her case and make her school a better place for all of its students.

Just a few hours after filing the case in Florida, we got word that a decision had come down on another schools case, this time in Massachusetts. In that case, two families had objected to the public school including books about tolerance for LGBT people and families in its curriculum, claiming that exposing their children to the books violated the parents’ ability to direct the religious training of their children. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging dismissal of the case, Parker v. Hurley, on behalf of local Lexington parents, teachers, and religious groups, as well as civil rights organizations that supported the teaching of diversity and respect for others.

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