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Sweet Opinion Issued in Whacked-Out Florida Free Speech/Gay Rights Case

Chris Hampton,
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July 25, 2008

Yesterday, a federal judge issued his official opinion in a school free speech case that ended earlier this summer. The published opinion is a fascinating read and a thing of beauty for those of us who value the First Amendment and believe in equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

In other news, the school at the center of this case just announced this week that it is bringing in a new principal. Interesting!

The case, Gillman v. Holmes County School District, came about in September 2007 when a lesbian student at Ponce de Leon High School in the Florida panhandle went to the principal to report that she was being harassed by other students because she is a lesbian. Instead of addressing the harassment, the principal grilled her about being a lesbian, told her that being a lesbian is “not right,” demanded her parents’ phone number so he could call them to out her, and threatened her with suspension if she didn’t stay away from the students who were harassing her.

Fortunately, many students at the school were a bit more, well, principled than their principal, and upon hearing about the ordeal the lesbian student had gone through they started a movement to support LGBT students at their school. The “GP” or “Gay Pride” movement, as the students called it, consisted of pretty innocuous stuff — wearing rainbow t-shirts, writing “GP” on their notebooks, and so on. The principal huffed and puffed and, according to U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak:

(The principal) embarked on what can only be characterized as a “witch hunt” to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters, further adding fuel to the fire. He went so far as to lift the shirts of female students to insure that the letters “GP” or the words “Gay Pride” were not written on their bodies.

Eventually 11 students were suspended for participating in the GP movement. Apparently that wasn’t enough, as the mother of one of the suspended students testified that the principal told her that he could secretly “send her [daughter] off to a private Christian school down in Tallahassee” or to the juvenile detention center and that “if there was a man in your house, your children were in church, you wouldn’t be having any of these gay issues.”

Finally, the ACLU learned what was going on and took the school to court on behalf of one student, Heather Gillman, who was brave enough to step forward and sue the school (click here for an MP3 audio interview with Heather). During a two-day trial in May, the principal’s testimony defied belief — our personal favorite was when he said, in all seriousness, that seeing clothing or stickers featuring rainbows would make students automatically picture gay people having sex. Judge Smoak clearly found the school’s case as ludicrous and offensive as we did and ruled in the students’ (and the First Amendment’s) favor and ordered the school to immediately stop squelching student speech.

In the opinion published yesterday, Judge Smoak wrote: “The robust exchange of political ideas is essential in a vibrant, progressive society and is precisely the type of speech that is sacrosanct under the First Amendment.”

Darn tootin’.

Here’s the opinion, which is chock full of other shocking details in the case and offers a beautiful explanation of why students should and do have a right to free speech in public schools, and how LGBT students and their friends are absolutely included.

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