ACLU Demands Virginia High School Stop Censoring Gay Student

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
December 20, 2007 12:00 am

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PORTSMOUTH, VA – The American Civil Liberties Union today demanded that a high school that punished a student for wearing a t-shirt featuring a lesbian pride symbol apologize to the student and guarantee that it will no longer illegally censor her in the future. School officials at I.C. Norcom High School had threatened the 17-year-old senior with suspension because a teacher was upset by her t-shirt, which bears an image of two overlapping female gender symbols.

“When my teacher told me she wanted me to turn my shirt inside-out or cover it up, I was confused, because I’ve worn that shirt to school several times before and nobody ever said a word about it,” said Bethany Laccone, who attends a different school full-time but goes to Norcom High every morning for a hotel management class. “I wear that shirt because I want people to know that I’m proud of being a lesbian and comfortable with who I am. And I have the same Constitutional right to free speech as any other student.”

In a letter sent to I.C. Norcom High School officials this morning, the ACLU demanded that any mention of the censorship be removed from Laccone’s student record, that the school guarantee it would not illegally censor Laccone or other students in the future, and that the school apologize to Laccone for its actions.

“What’s happening to Bethany Laccone is a clear-cut case of unconstitutional censorship,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “Bethany Laccone has the same rights to express her opinions and be open about who she is as any other student. We intend to make sure I.C. Norcom High School stops breaking the law and treats all of its students equally regardless of their views.”

Laccone says that on December 10 she was pulled out of class by a teacher who said she shouldn’t be wearing the shirt at school and then sent her to the assistant principal’s office. The assistant principal and the teacher then told Laccone that the shirt violated a section of the school dress code that bans “bawdy, salacious or sexually suggestive messages.” In a later meeting with Laccone’s father, the assistant principal said that he was upholding the censorship, and added that because the teacher is “very conservative” she claimed she was so upset by the t-shirt that it “interfered with her ability to teach.”

“A public school teacher’s job is to serve the needs of all the students who go to that school,” said Christine Sun, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “If a teacher can’t deal with the fact that there are gay students in her classroom, that doesn’t mean she gets to violate that student’s First Amendment rights.”

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark ACLU case Tinker v. Des Moines that students have a Constitutional right to free speech. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “Schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. Students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gates.” In addition to being a symbol of lesbian pride, the symbols on Laccone’s shirt are also commonly used in chemistry, astronomy, and astrology and are believed by some scholars to date back as far as ancient Roman times.

The ACLU of Virginia and the national ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project are working together in handling Laccone’s complaint.

Reporters interested in interviewing Bethany Laccone should contact Chris Hampton at (212) 549-2673. More information about Laccone’s case, including a photo of the t-shirt and a copy of the demand letter the ACLU sent to I.C. Norcom High School, can be found online here:

More information about the ACLU’s work to protect the rights of LGBT students can be found online here: /safeschools

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