SAN FRANCISCO — A central California school district settled a free speech lawsuit brought by a high school junior who was sent home for refusing to change out of a T-shirt that read, “Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian.”
The deal approved Tuesday night requires the Manteca Unified School District, which serves the cities of Stockton, Lathrop and Manteca, to adopt a policy clarifying that students may wear clothing with statements celebrating their or their classmates’ cultural identities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The case is the latest in a long line of legal disputes over the clothing messages that school and college officials may prohibit for the stated purpose of maintaining discipline.
Taylor Victor, 16, and her mother sued two Sierra High School administrators who told the girl in August that her shirt was an improper display of sexuality that violated the school’s dress code and might be disruptive. A teacher had her called to the office when she showed up in the shirt, according to court documents.
“The law on this is very clear: public schools can’t censor the personal beliefs of students,” ACLU attorney Linnea Nelson said. “The message of Taylor’s T-shirt expresses the most fundamental type of speech already protected by the First Amendment, the California Constitution and the California education code.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the high school administrators deny violating Victor’s free speech rights and they and the district deny any wrongdoing. District officials did not have immediate comment Wednesday.
Victor, who was open at school about identifying as a lesbian, said she had reviewed the district’s dress code before deciding to wear the shirt. Not finding any rules prohibiting pro-gay messages, she says she chose to go home instead of change.
“I knew that rule did not exist, and I knew that was my free speech right to wear that shirt to school,” Victor said in an interview.
In other recent cases, Ohio University last year agreed to revise its student conduct code and pay $32,000 to a student who sued after a campus group was told not to wear T-shirts bearing a sexually suggestive double entendre.
In 2013, a Connecticut school district agreed to let a high school student wear a T-shirt with a slash mark through a gay pride rainbow after facing the threat of legal action from the ACLU.