Arkansas School District Agrees to Guarantee Gay Student's Right to be Out at School

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
April 10, 2003 12:00 am

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LGRP - Thomas McLaughlin

LITTLE ROCK, AR — In a court conference held this afternoon, the Pulaski County Special School District agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union and a federal judge that students have a Constitutional right to be openly gay in school.

“We’re very pleased that the court recognized right away that a school has no place telling gay students that they can’t be out of the closet at school,” said Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

In talks with ACLU attorneys representing 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin and counsel for the school district, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele said that under the First Amendment schools cannot silence or restrict students’ speech unless it is disruptive. The school’s attorney agreed when Judge Eisele asked if the school would adhere to the conditions the ACLU had asked for in its motion: that the school not restrict McLaughlin’s speech during non-instructional time with regard to his sexual orientation or punishments he has received from school officials. Judge Eisele went on to tell attorneys that he would expedite the trial in McLaughlin’s lawsuit, which the ACLU filed Tuesday.

“We’re absolutely thrilled with what Judge Eisele had to say this afternoon,” said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “Thomas McLaughlin has been muzzled by his teachers and administrators for far too long, and in America schools can’t do that.”

This afternoon’s conference clears the way for the lawsuit, in which the ACLU contends that school officials violated Thomas McLaughlin’s rights to free speech, equal protection, and privacy, and that they violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by preaching to him and forcing him read the Bible as punishment.

The ACLU sent a letter to the district on March 13 describing how Jacksonville Junior High School faculty and administrators had “outed” Thomas McLaughlin to his parents without his permission, preached to him, made him read the Bible, and disciplined him for talking about his sexual orientation and later for talking about that punishment.

McLaughlin is represented by the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and attorney Kathy Hall of Little Rock, who is volunteering her services for the ACLU of Arkansas.

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