Censorship of Gay Student Is Discriminatory Free Speech Violation, Says ACLU of New Jersey

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
June 25, 2007 12:00 am

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ACLU of New Jersey
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NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in a letter sent today called on the Newark Public Schools to rescind last week’s decision to censor hundreds of East Side High School yearbooks that included a photo of a male student kissing his boyfriend. The ACLU-NJ advised the school district that its censorship of this photo violates free speech and New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

“With so many challenges the Newark Public Schools face in educating their students, what a waste that they took the time to teach a lesson in discrimination and censorship instead of equality and free speech,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs.

At the direction of Newark Public Schools Superintendent Marion Bolden, school personnel used markers to block out the image of student Andre Jackson and his boyfriend, while allowing photos of heterosexual students kissing to remain. The photo was on a tribute page paid for by Jackson; tribute pages make up about 20 percent of the yearbook, and several others showed heterosexual couples kissing.

The ACLU-NJ called on the school district to immediately re-issue the yearbook to all students with the original photograph in place.

The ACLU-NJ’s letter to Superintendent Bolden, sent by Legal Director Ed Barocas, cited numerous cases and grounds on which the schools actions could be challenged, including a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that specifically addressed discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students. The court ruled that students, including LGBT students, have as much a right to be free from discrimination in their schools as adults have to be free from discrimination in the workplace. The ACLU-NJ had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case.

“Treating same-sex couples differently from heterosexual couples not only disregards the fundamental guarantees of the Constitution and the laws of the State of New Jersey but also sends a dangerous message to the student body,” Barocas said in the letter. “The message that LGBT students are unacceptable and undeserving serves to justify peer harassment, one of the most serious concerns schools face today.”

The ACLU-NJ has addressed similar issues before, including its successful defense of the free speech and equal protection rights of an 11th Grade Student at Bridgeton High School who had been disciplined for wearing a T-shirt that expressed affection for lesbians.

A copy of the ACLU letter to the Newark Public Schools is available online at:
www.aclu-nj.org/downloads/062507letternewark.pdf

Information about the Bridgeton High School student defense can be found at:
www.aclu-nj.org/legal/closedcasearchive/aclunjdefendsstudentsright.htm.

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