ACLU Exposes Censorship at High Schools in Ohio and Missouri

April 6, 2005 12:00 am

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Zach Hust, an Ohio student who was told to change shirts. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Incidents Stand in Contrast to Recent Survey about Student Awareness on First Amendment

NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union today took on schools in two different states for violating the First Amendment rights of students who wish to wear t-shirts expressing their support for gay rights issues.

In Missouri, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court against a high school that twice punished a student for wearing t-shirts expressing her support for gay rights. LaStaysha Myers, a heterosexual 15-year-old student at Webb City High School in Missouri, was twice sent home from school last November for wearing homemade t-shirts; first, one bearing several handwritten slogans such as “I support the gay rights!” and “Who are we to judge?” and the next day one that bore a rainbow and the Webster’s dictionary definition of “gay”: “M[e]rry, happy.”

Also today, in Ohio, the ACLU sent a letter to school officials demanding that they stop censoring a group of students who want to wear t-shirts supporting marriage for same-sex couples. Two weeks ago, a student at Dublin Jerome High School was told to take off a t-shirt that read “I support gay marriage” after administrators claimed that a student had been offended by it. The next day, about 20 students protested the action by coming to school in similar t-shirts. They were required to change their t-shirts, turn them inside-out, or go home. In both schools, administrators routinely allowed students to wear shirts expressing other messages, including endorsements of the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns, students’ views on abortion, and religious messages.

“Our principal says that the shirts are disruptive, but the truth is that the only thing that’s been disruptive has been the way the school has reacted to them,” said 16-year-old Zach Hust, one of the Ohio students who was told to change shirts. “I haven’t heard anyone complain about our support for gay people and their right to marry, but everyone’s upset and angry that our school is trampling all over our First Amendment rights.”

“Because the Supreme Court has held that students have a First Amendment right to free speech at school unless that speech disrupts the educational process, many administrators try to justify illegal censorship by claiming a student’s speech is disruptive without any evidence or proof that it really is,” said Jeff Gamso, legal director at the ACLU of Ohio. “But for the censorship to be legal, the speech itself must be genuinely disruptive — it can’t just be censored because someone finds it offensive or it generates discussion or the administration is worried that it might cause controversy.”

In January, results of a national survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of more than 100,000 high school students were released showing that nearly three-fourths of high school students either don’t care or don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment, or admit they take it for granted.

“Schools that prevent students from expressing their opinions on gay rights or any other issue are not only failing their duties to teach students how to be good citizens — they’re also violating the United States Constitution,” said Dick Kurtenbach, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri who represents Myers. “With those who are supposed to be teaching our young people acting this way, it’s no wonder so many students don’t understand or value their First Amendment rights.”

In Webb City, the recently formed LGBT Task Force of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri is working with Kenneth Y. Choe, a staff attorney at the national ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, in handling Myers’s complaint, with William Fleischaker of Fleischaker, Williams and Powell as co-counsel. In Ohio, Hust and the other censored students are represented by ACLU of Ohio legal director Jeff Gamso.

Legal documents, photos, and additional information on the Missouri case, LaStaysha Myers v. Jeff Thornsberry, Stephen Gollhofer, and Ronald Lankford, can be viewed online at: /cpredirect/12167.

Photos, the demand letter, and additional information on the Ohio matter can be viewed online at /node/22265.

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