Federal Judge Rules That Students Can’t Be Barred From Expressing Support for Gay People

May 13, 2008 12:00 am

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Principal Said Rainbows Are “Sexually Suggestive”

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PANAMA CITY, FL – After a two-day trial in which a Florida high school principal testified that he believed clothing or stickers featuring rainbows would make students automatically picture gay people having sex, a federal judge today ruled that the school violated students’ First Amendment rights of students. The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a junior at the school who had been forbidden by her principal to wear any sort of clothing, stickers, buttons, or symbols to show her support of equal rights for gay people.

“Standing up to my school was really hard to do, but I’m so happy that I did because the First Amendment is a big deal to everyone,” said Heather Gillman, a junior at Ponce de Leon High School and the plaintiff in the case.

Judge Richard Smoak of the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division, issued an order that forces the school to stop its unconstitutional censorship of students who want to express their support for the fair and equal treatment of gay people. The judge also warned the district not to retaliate against students over the lawsuit.

“Freedom of speech for every person and every idea is one of the bedrock principles on which America was founded,” said Christine Sun, a staff attorney with the ACLU national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “Censorship reflects a deep lack of faith in the American system, and it teaches students exactly the wrong lesson on what America is about. We are thrilled that the court in this case made the importance of students’ First Amendment rights so completely clear.”

The case came about after Heather Gillman and other students approached the ACLU about an atmosphere in which students say they were routinely intimidated by school officials for things like writing “gay pride” on their arms and notebooks or wearing rainbow-themed clothing. According to students, problems began in September of 2007 when a lesbian student tried to report to school officials that she was being harassed by other students because she is a lesbian. Instead of addressing the harassment, students say the school responded with intimidation, censorship, and suspensions. That student testified on Monday, breaking down on the stand as she described the school’s indifference to the harassment she experienced.

During the trial, which was held in Panama City yesterday and today, Ponce de Leon High School’s principal David Davis admitted under oath that he had banned students from wearing any clothing or symbols supporting equal rights for gay people. Davis also testified that he believed rainbows were “sexually suggestive” and would make students unable to study because they’d be picturing gay sex acts in their mind. The principal went on to admit that while censoring rainbows and gay pride messages he allowed students to wear other symbols many find controversial, such as the Confederate flag.

“I am very pleased with the judge’s ruling to uphold the students’ right to express their views on issues that are important to them,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “This whole experience has been important civics lesson about exercising our Bill of Rights.”

Ponce de Leon High School is located halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee, in Florida’s panhandle. According to the school’s website, about 400 students are enrolled there. Heather Gillman is represented by Stevenson and Robert Rosenwald of the ACLU of Florida, Sun of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, and Garrard Beeney, Maura Miller, Meg Holzer, Megan Bradley, Tom Laughlin, and Vincent Liu of Sullivan & Cromwell, LLC.

Gillman v. Holmes County School District, case no. 5:08-cv-34, was heard in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida. A copy of the ACLU’s complaint as well as the earlier letter and the school’s response can be downloaded at:

For more information on the ACLU’s LGBT advocacy work, visit www.aclufl.org or www.aclu.org/lgbt.

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