ACLU Scolds Missouri High School for Censoring Gay Student

Affiliate: ACLU of Kansas
October 29, 2004 12:00 am

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WEBB CITY, MO – The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the defense of a high school junior who was sent home twice from school for wearing t-shirts bearing gay pride messages. The principal cited concerns that other students may be offended by the shirts worn by Brad Mathewson.

“This school allows its students to freely express their views on gay and lesbian rights – but only if they’re on the anti-gay side of the issue,” said Jolie Justus, a member of the legal panel for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, noting that bumperstickers in favor of Missouri’s recently-passed anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment are ubiquitous in the school’s hallways and parking lot. “This is a classic case of censorship. Brad Mathewson has the same Constitutional right to political speech and expression that the Supreme Court says all students have.”

Mathewson was sent to the principal’s office by his homeroom teacher on October 20 after she spotted his t-shirt. The shirt bears the name of the Gay-Straight Alliance at his old high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas (FHS Gay-Straight Alliance), a pink triangle, and the words, “Make a Difference!” When an assistant principal saw it, he told Mathewson to go home and change shirts because someone might be offended by it. Although Mathewson pointed out the anti-gay marriage stickers seen throughout the school, his concerns were ignored. Mathewson was again disciplined when he came to school on October 27 wearing a t-shirt featuring a rainbow and the phrase, “I’m gay and I’m proud.”

“Even though nobody complained about my t-shirts, my school told me I couldn’t wear them just because someone might get offended,” said Mathewson, a junior at Webb City High School. “But every day I see students at my school with anti-gay stickers on their notebooks and sometimes on their shirts, and I find that offensive. I understand that they have a right to express what they think, but I have a right to do the same thing.”

Mathewson and his mother met with school officials yesterday morning to express their concerns about the censorship. In the meeting, two assistant principals and the principal told Mathewson that they wouldn’t allow him to wear shirts bearing gay pride messages because they feared it would cause controversy.

In a letter sent late yesterday to school, the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri pointed to the school’s dress code policy, which only states that students’ clothing must be “free of obscene or suggestive markings, advertisements of tobacco, alcoholic beverages, drugs, and/or other products deemed inappropriate by school officials.” The ACLU demanded that officials remove any mention of the incident from Mathewson’s records and allow him to wear the shirts without fear of punishment.

“You can’t trample someone’s First Amendment rights just because someone might take offense at what that person has to say,” said Dick Kurtenbach, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “Schools that unlawfully censor students’ views should be given an F in civics.”

The recently formed LGBT Task Force of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri is working with the national ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in handling Mathewson’s complaint.

The school’s dress code policy can be found online at:

The text of the letter sent to Webb City school officials is as follows:

October 28, 2004

Via US Post and Facsimile

Superintendent Dr. Ronald Lankford
Webb City School District
411 N. Madison
Webb City, MO 64870

Principal Stephen P. Gollhofer
Assistant Principal Jeff Thornsberry
Assistant Principal Randy Richardson
Webb City High School
621 N. Madison
Webb City, MO 64870

Dear Superintendent Lankford, Principal Gollhofer, Assistant Principal Thornsberry, and Assistant Principal Richardson,

We have been contacted by Brad Mathewson, a student at Webb City High School, about the administration prohibiting him from wearing two t-shirts with words and messages related to Brad’s sexuality.

I write so that we can work to resolve this matter quickly. It is our understanding that on October 20, 2004, Brad wore the first t-shirt to school. This t-shirt is related to Brad’s former high school’s gay-straight alliance and had the words Gay-Straight Alliance on the front and on the back the words “Make a Difference”, three pairs of symbols (two male symbols, two female symbols, a male and female symbol), and a pink triangle, a well-known symbol of the gay rights movement. That morning, Brad’s homeroom teacher Ms. Gray told him the t-shirt was not appropriate and sent Brad to the office.

Brad went to the office and met with Assistant Principal Thornsberry, who said the shirt was inappropriate, distracting, and may be offensive to other students. Brad questioned Mr. Thornsberry about why the t-shirt was considered inappropriate, distracting, and offensive to others but Mr. Thornsberry was not direct as to why. Brad pointed out that other students have stickers on their notebooks and backpacks expressing their personal views that gay marriage is wrong and that could be distracting to students who disagree with them but Mr. Thornsberry simply said that was not the same thing without giving a detailed explanation. Mr. Thornsberry gave Brad the option of changing his shirt or turning it inside-out.

On the way to the bathroom to turn his shirt inside-out, Brad met his friend James Shaffer. James identifies himself as straight. Brad and James decided to switch shirts. James wore the shirt Brad had been told to remove. James wore the shirt for the rest of the day without incident. No one in the administration approached James about removing the shirt.

A second incident occurred on October 28, 2004. Brad wore a t-shirt with a rainbow, a star, and with the words “I’m gay and I’m proud” all on the front. One of Brad’s friends wore a shirt with the words “I love lesbians” on the front. Mr. Thornsberry approached Brad and Brad’s friend and told them they would have to change shirts or, for Brad only, turn the shirt inside-out. Brad refused and left school to go home and call his mother.

Brad and his mother met with Principal Gollhofer, Assistant Principal Thornsberry, and Assistant Principal Richardson this morning, October 28, 2004, to discuss the two incidents. Brad’s mother pointed out the disparate treatment of the first incident because when Brad’s straight friend, James wore the shirt, nothing was said. The explanation given to Brad and his mother for this was that the administration could not catch everyone who wore so-called inappropriate clothing. Brad and his mother were then told this incident was similar to a rebel flag ban at Webb City High School that took place a few years ago. The reason stated for banning the rebel flag symbol was that it divided the students. Brad and his mother were also told that the school was trying to protect Brad from other students who may act out against Brad for proclaiming his sexuality. Principal Gollhofer specifically pointed out that Webb City High School is in the middle of the “Bible Belt” and by Brad wearing the aforementioned t-shirts, he was “flaunting” his sexuality, which could lead to problems for him.

We believe that the incidents as described by Brad raise free speech concerns. The t-shirts worn by Brad and his fellow student intended to convey a particularized message that gay or lesbian sexual orientation should be celebrated and is a source of pride for those who identify as gay or lesbian. Students have a right to political speech or expression, including expression of their sexual orientation, unless the administration can demonstrate that the forbidden conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 508 (1969). We are unaware of any substantial or material disruption resulting from the wearing of the shirts. In fact, the only disruptions seem to be a result of the administration’s actions.

After all, Brad had previously worn the Gay-Straight Alliance t-shirt to Webb City High School without incident. A reasonable belief must be substantiated by facts that “might have reasonably led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference of school activities.” Tinker at 514. Fear that a disturbance may result is not sufficient to overcome a student’s right to freedom of expression. Tinker at 508. So far, fear that a disturbance may result from wearing the t-shirts is the only explanation for the ban proffered by the Webb City High School administration.

Courts have upheld the rights of students to wear clothing that conveys a message that others deem controversial. See Castorina v Madison County School Board, 246 F. 3d 536 (6th Cir 2001) (t-shirt depicting confederate flag); Chambers v Babbitt, 145 F. Supp. 2d 1068 (D. Minn. 2001) (sweatshirt emblazoned with message “Straight Pride); Barber v Dearborn Public Schools, 286 F. Supp. 2d 847 (E.D. Mich. 2003) (T-shirt with picture of President Bush with caption “International Terrorist”). It is interesting to note that the Webb City High School administration instituted a ban against wearing anything with a depiction of the confederate flag but the court in Castorina held that symbol, although racist, was constitutionally protected speech.

In the case of Brad, I am unaware of any substantial or material disruption resulting from the wearing of the t-shirts celebrating his sexuality. In fact, Brad wore the t-shirts previously without any interference with the school’s educational environment.

To resolve this matter, we ask you to do the following:
1) reverse any disciplinary action that may have been taken against Brad Mathewson as a result of his wearing the t-shirts described above;
2) provide reassurance that neither Brad nor any other students will be punished solely for the expression of their political views on their t-shirts;
3) provide reassurance that Brad and other students will be able to wear t-shirts that celebrate their gay and lesbian sexual orientation;
4) add to the school policy a provision with makes it clear that students will not be punished for the expression of their political views unless the speech causes a material disruption of the school.

If there are reasons unknown to us that expressing one’s gay or lesbian sexual orientation on clothing are causing a material disruption to the educational environment of the school, we would like to know what those reasons are. Please respond to this letter by Friday, November 5, 2004, so we will know whether we will have to pursue remedies in a different forum. Please contact me if you would like to discuss the matter in more detail.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Dick Kurtenbach
Executive Director
ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri

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