March 10, 2005

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: media@aclu.org

MIDLOTHIAN, VA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today asked Manchester High School in Chesterfield County to allow gay author Greg Herren to speak at the school tomorrow afternoon as originally planned. Herren's invitation to address the members of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance and other students was rescinded last week by Principal Peter Koste, who claimed that "concerns from the community" and possible "inappropriate" content led him to cancel the talk.

"This appears to be nothing more than raw discrimination against the Gay-Straight Alliance because it dares to address the issue of homosexuality in high schools," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. "The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires schools to allow organizations access to school facilities during non-school hours without discriminating based on the viewpoint of the organization or speaker."

Herren, who is from New Orleans and writes mystery novels, was invited to speak with students about various aspects of writing, including how his perspective as a gay man influences his writing. The presentation was originally scheduled during school hours as part of an optional program, but was later rescheduled to take place after school hours on March 11. However, on March 4, Koste announced that the program had been cancelled in response to complaints from the community.

In a letter faxed earlier today to Koste, the ACLU stated that the decision to disallow the program could be in violation of the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Equal Access Act requires schools to treat non-curricular student groups equally. According to the ACLU, other student groups at Manchester High School are permitted to invite guest speakers, even during school hours.

The ACLU also expressed concerns about other actions taken by Manchester High Schools officials that discriminate against the Gay-Straight Alliance. The ACLU has been told by representatives of the student group that they are not allowed to use the alliance's full name in the posters that they display in school, nor are they allowed to state in announcements that Gay-Straight Alliance meetings are open to all students, including those who are gay, straight or questioning.

In addition, the Manchester High School Gay-Straight Alliance received approval to operate for only one year, but no such restrictions apply to other student clubs.

"Based on the information we have been able to obtain, we believe there is a pattern of illegal discrimination against the GSA at Manchester High School and that the cancellation of invitation is merely the most recent example of that pattern," said Willis. "We want assurances from officials at Manchester High School that the Gay-Straight Alliance will receive the same treatment as other student clubs. The school can start by contacting Mr. Herren today and re-inviting him to speak at the school tomorrow afternoon."

A copy of the ACLU's letter is below.

For more information on the ACLU's defense of Gay-Straight Alliances, go to /LesbianGayRights/LesbianGayRightslist.cfm?c=106.

ACLU of Virginia
Six North Sixth Street, Suite 400
Richmond, Virginia 23219
(804) 644-8022

March 15, 2005

Mr. Peter M. Koste
Principal
Manchester High School
12601 Bailey Bridge Road
Midlothian, VA 23112

Dear Mr. Koste:

I write on behalf of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at your school to urge you to reconsider your decision prohibiting author Greg Herren from speaking after school this Friday, and to retract other discriminatory restrictions on the GSA.

It is my understanding that Mr. Herren was originally scheduled to speak during school hours as part of an optional program. The program was then rescheduled to take place after school hours. After the School Board received a spate of complaints, the guest speaker was cancelled altogether.

In a memo dated March 4, 2005, you stated: "After receiving expressed concerns from the community, and because presently we have only a general description of the program's content, the administration believes that the proposed program may not be in furtherance of the approved purposes of the GSA as stated in its bylaws and, furthermore, that the content could be inappropriate for high school students."

If, as you say, the problem with the March 11 program is a lack of information about its content, that problem is easily remedied. Based on my communications with the GSA faculty advisor, Mr. Russell, the content of the program will be as follows:

  • Mr. Herren will discuss various aspects of writing, such as narrative style, character development, and development;
  • Mr. Herren will encourage students to write and will offer suggestions;
  • Mr. Herren will discuss how his perspective as a gay man influences his writing; and
  • Mr. Herren will not engage in any sexually explicit speech or discuss any sexual activity.

If you require any further details about the content of the program, Mr. Russell will be happy to provide them. The discussion will further the GSA's purpose, described in its by-laws, to "promote tolerance at school." It will also be valuable for students -- whether members of the GSA or not -- who are interested in writing to hear a fresh perspective on the topic from a working author.

If you persist in disallowing the program, you may be in violation of the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. As you are no doubt aware, the Equal Access Act requires schools to treat non-curricular student groups equally. It is my understanding that other student groups, such as Umoja, are permitted to invite guest speakers, even during school hours. The GSA must be afforded the same opportunity. Moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires schools to allow organizations access to school facilities during non-school hours without discriminating based on the viewpoint of the organization or speaker.

In addition to the cancellation of Mr. Herren's program, it appears that the GSA has been differently treated in other ways. First, the GSA has been approved for only one year. It is my understanding that other student organizations do not have such time restrictions. Second, the GSA has been told that it may not use its full name, "Gay-Straight Alliance" in its posters, nor may it include language indicating that meetings are open to all students, whether gay, straight, or questioning. This discriminatory treatment against the GSA also violates the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment.

In sum, I request that Mr. Herren be allowed to give his program after school on March 11, as previously planned. Moreover, I ask for immediate written assurances that:

  • The GSA will be allowed to invite speakers in the future on an equal basis with other student organizations;
  • The GSA will not be restricted approval for only one year;
  • The GSA will be allowed to use its full name on its posters, and to advertise that it is open to all students, regardless of sexual orientation.
  • The GSA will in all other respects be treated equally to other organizations.

Should you have any questions, please feel free to call me at (804) 644-8080. Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

Sincerely,

Rebecca K. Glenberg
Legal Director

Cc: Dr. Billy K. Cannaday, Jr., Superintendent.

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