No "Queer Eye" at North Carolina High School

April 26, 2004 12:00 am


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ACLU Blasts School Officials for Illegally Censoring Gay Student

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the aid of a gay student at James Baxter Hunt, Jr. High School in Wilson, North Carolina, criticizing the school for removing two posters promoting his campaign for student body president and demanding that it take steps to remedy its illegal censorship.

Gamwell and posters

Jarred Gamwell beside his censored campaign posters

“”All I wanted to do was be open about who I am and let other students know that if they elect me president I’ll welcome and accept diversity and a variety of ideas,”” said Jarred Gamwell, a 17-year-old junior who hopes to become an English teacher. He added, “”I’m ready to fight for the rights of students at my school, but I didn’t expect to have to fight for my own rights first.””

On Tuesday, April 20, Jarred put up some campaign posters, as all the candidates are allowed to do, and went to his Honors Band class. When his class ended, Jarred discovered two of the posters — one with the slogan “”Queer Eye for Hunt High”” and another reading “”Gay Guys Know Everything!”” — had been taken down. Jarred went to school administrators and discovered that it was Principal Bill Williamson who had ordered the removal of the posters.

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

“”Without any explanation whatsoever, the principal of Hunt High School has tried to stop Jarred Gamwell from being open and honest with his fellow students about his life and identity — a blatant violation of his First Amendment right to free expression,”” said Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. She added, “”The Supreme Court has long held that high school students – including gay students – are protected by the Constitution.””

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

  • Permit Jarred to put the two posters back up immediately, and
  • Allow Jarred to convey the messages that were kept from the student body and talk about the censorship that has taken place in his campaign speech, scheduled along with the other candidates for tomorrow afternoon.

School officials have informed the ACLU that they will respond to its letter later this afternoon. Jarred is represented by Cooper, ACLU of North Carolina Managing Attorney Seth Jaffe, and cooperating attorney Seth Cohen of Greensboro.

The letter sent this morning to James Baxter Hunt, Jr. High School follows:

————–

April 26, 2004

By Facsimile
Principal Bill Williamson
James Baxter Hunt Jr. High School
4559 Lamm Road
Wilson, North Carolina 27893
Fax: 252-399-7897

Re: Jarred Gamwell

Dear Principal Williamson:

I am writing on behalf of Jarred Gamwell, a junior at Hunt High School, regarding the censorship of posters he displayed as part of his campaign for president of the Student Government Association (“”SGA””).

Specifically, I have been advised that the following events occurred:

  • During the week of April 19-23, like other students running for SGA offices, Jarred campaigned by making posters and hanging them in the halls of the school. Most of his posters and those made by other candidates remained on display in the hallways for the full week.
  • However, two of Jarred’s posters were removed shortly after they were put up. One read “”Vote Jarred Gamwell for SGA president,”” followed by the slogan “”Queer Eye for Hunt High.”” The other stated “”Vote Jarred Gamwell for SGA President, Gay Guys Know Everything!”” (A photograph of the two posters is attached.) Jarred put up these two posters during the morning on April 20 and he noticed that they had been removed by the end of the next class block.
  • That afternoon, Jarred was summoned to Vice Principal Harris’ office. Mr. Harris had the two missing posters and told Jarred that they could not be displayed. When Jarred asked why, Mr. Harris advised him to take the matter up with you.
  • The next day, April 21, Jarred met with you to discuss the removal of his posters. You told him that the posters had been taken down at your initiative. Jarred explained to you why it was important for him to include these messages in his campaign for SGA president: he wanted the student voters to get to know him and see his pride; he wanted to convey the message that he would not discriminate if elected SGA president; and he thought they were catchy slogans. He asked you both verbally and in writing why the posters could not be displayed but you would not give him an explanation.
  • The following day, April 22, Jarred went to meet with you again and you still refused to let him display the two posters and you still refused to provide him with an explanation for the censorship of these campaign messages.

The school administration’s removal of these two campaign posters is a clear violation of Jarred’s constitutional right to free expression. The Supreme Court has made it clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. Hunt High School established a forum for SGA candidates to campaign-hanging posters in the school hallways-but censored Jarred’s campaign messages with no justification. The First Amendment prohibits such conduct by school officials.

We demand that you remedy this constitutional violation by permitting Jarred to put the two posters back up in the school halls between now and the election, which is scheduled to take place first thing in the morning on Wednesday, April 27. Since at most this would give him only two days to convey the messages that he intended to have posted for four days, we further demand that you permit Jarred to amend his campaign speech that he will deliver on Tuesday in order to convey the censored messages and to discuss the censorship that took place.

We need to hear back from you by noon today or we will take whatever action we deem appropriate to protect Jarred’s rights. You can reach me at (direct phone number redacted).

Sincerely,

Leslie Cooper
Staff Attorney

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