ACLU Sues North Carolina High School for Silencing Gay Student

April 27, 2004 12:00 am

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Student Candidate’s “”Queer Eye”” Poster Illegally Removed by School Officials


NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a state superior court to end school officials’ attempts to censor a gay student’s campaign posters promoting his run for student body president. The posters – one with the slogan, “”Queer Eye for Hunt High”” and another reading, “”Gay Guys Know Everything”” – were removed by administrators at James Baxter Hunt Jr. High School in Wilson, North Carolina.

“”At first, I just wanted to know why these two posters were taken down when dozens of others were still up in our hallways, but now I feel it’s important to stand up for my principles and my word,”” said Jarred Gamwell, a 17-year-old junior who is an honor student. “”I’m surprised that the school is taking this so far, but now I feel it’s important to stand up for my rights to let other students know it’s wrong for a school to stop them from being open and proud about who they are.””

The ACLU sought a temporary restraining order before the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division, in Wilson, asking the court to force the school to put Gamwell’s posters back up before the student government election tomorrow.

The move comes in the wake of the school’s defiant response to the ACLU’s demands yesterday afternoon. In a letter to the ACLU, the school’s attorney claimed that any speech related to student government is school-sponsored speech and therefore the school has the right to censor it. The school went on to say Gamwell’s posters were “”disruptive”” and had nothing to do with his qualifications to be president. This morning, in a further effort to silence Gamwell, school officials announced to students that campaign speeches planned for today have been cancelled.

“”The North Carolina constitution makes it clear that students in situations like Jarred’s have a right to free expression, and Jarred has already explained that he wanted to use the posters to let other students know that he values diversity,”” said Seth Jaffe, Managing Attorney of the ACLU of North Carolina. “”The school’s argument that the posters were disruptive is patently ridiculous. References to popular TV shows don’t cause riots in the hallways.””

On Tuesday, April 20, Gamwell put up some campaign posters, as all the candidates are allowed to do, and went to his honors band class. When his class ended, Gamwell discovered the two posters that mentioned his being gay had been taken down. Other students’ campaign posters referencing popular media catchphrases – one that reads “”What can Brown do for you?”” and another stating, “”It’s Miller Time!”” – have been left undisturbed by the school.

Gamwell went to school administrators and discovered that it was Principal Bill Williamson who had ordered the removal of the posters. The next day, Gamwell met with Williamson and asked why the posters were taken down. The principal refused to answer, so Gamwell left a list of questions about why the posters had been removed and asked for a response in writing. Williamson let Gamwell take the posters when he left. On Thursday, Gamwell asked again, but Williamson again refused to answer any questions about the incident, telling Gamwell that principals don’t have to explain their actions to students. No other candidates’ posters have been taken down by school officials.

In its letter to the school, the ACLU asked that Hunt High School do two things to correct its violation of Gamwell’s rights:

  • Permit him to put the two posters back up immediately.
  • Allow Gamwell to convey the messages that were kept from the student body and talk about the censorship that has taken place in his campaign speech, which had been scheduled along with the other candidates for this morning.

“”To set up student elections and give students a forum for political speech in their posters and campaign speeches and then single out one student’s message because they don’t like the fact that he’s openly gay is wrongheaded and illegal,”” said Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project who is representing Gamwell.

Gamwell is represented by Cooper, Jaffe, and cooperating attorney Seth Cohen of Greensboro.

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