ACLU Defends Utah High School Students Censored for Wearing Gay-Themed Anti-Smoking T-Shirts

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
May 11, 2004 12:00 am

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Assistant Principal Suspends Students, Threatens to Ban Gay-Straight Alliance


SALT LAKE CITY - The American Civil Liberties Union today came to the defense of a group of Utah high school students who were punished for wearing ""Queers Kick Ash"" t-shirts to school. School officials also threatened to ban the school's gay-straight alliance, and dozens of students are planning to wear the t-shirts today in protest.

In a letter sent today to the school, the ACLU of Utah demanded that officials remove any suspensions from the students' records, allow the students to wear the shirts without fear of punishment, and drop its threats against the school's GSA.

Queers Kick Ash

The "Queers Kick Ash" logo from the students' censored t-shirts.

""The Supreme Court has firmly established that students have a constitutional right to political speech and expression, and when 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' is one of the most popular programs on television and universities all over the country have queer theory and queer studies programs, there's no doubt that it's a commonly-used political term,"" said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney with the ACLU's national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Last Thursday, three Hillcrest High School students who wore the shirts were punished by Assistant Principal David Breen, who told them that the shirts were inappropriate and that he disapproved of the word ""queer."" Two gay male students were given three options: taking the shirts off, turning them inside out, or suspension. One turned his shirt inside out and was allowed to stay at school; the other refused and was suspended. A heterosexual girl who wore the same shirt was given an additional fourth option of being sent home for the day without suspension, which she accepted.

On Friday, when more students wore the shirts to school and were similarly punished, Breen also threatened to bring the school's gay-straight alliance, which wasn't involved in distributing the t-shirts, to ""a screeching halt.""

""Not only are the school's reasons for censoring these students unlawful, but the Assistant Principal's treating a straight student differently from the gay students and his threats to ban the school's gay-straight alliance are completely unjustifiable,"" said Margaret Plane, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Utah. ""The school mishandled this from the start by punishing and threatening these students when it should be applauding them for taking a stand on an important public health issue.""

The shirts are part of an anti-smoking campaign aimed at LGBT youth. ""Adolescence is a hard time for all young people, but it's particularly stressful for LGBT students, who are dealing with the added stresses of harassment and coming out, and many of them turn to smoking. To reach young people on this issue, it must be done in a thought-provoking way that will make smoking seem uncool,"" said Melinda Maureen, Director of Youth Programs at the GLBT Community Center of Utah, which gave the shirts to the students. She added, ""These students are trying to do something incredibly positive by fighting the epidemic of youth smoking, and their school would rather silence them because it's aimed at gay kids.""

A study from last year found that 34 percent of LGBT adults smoke, compared to 24 percent of heterosexual adults, and 90 percent of smokers began smoking as teenagers. Despite those figures, 89 percent of LGBT adults said that they had not seen an anti-smoking education or awareness campaign targeted toward them. The "Queers Kick Ash" effort is part of a larger campaign to address that gap and uses peer advocacy to discourage LGBT youth from smoking.

Today, about 25 students held a short, peaceful protest about Hillcrest's handling of the t-shirts outside the school before classes began, and more students showed up at school wearing the shirts. It is not yet known whether those students are receiving similar punishment.

More information about LGBT youth and smoking can be found in a Witeck-Combs Communications/Harris Interactive survey released in January 2003, online at

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