Students in a Tennessee school district can no longer be prohibited from wearing clothing with a pro-LGBTQ message, following a legal victory by the ACLU of Tennessee.
In what the ACLU called “a victory for free speech,” a federal district court ordered the Giles County school system to lift its ban on pro-LGBT clothing, writing that “student expression on LGBT issues is speech on a purely political topic, which falls clearly within the ambit of the First Amendment’s protection.”
According to the lawsuit, Richland High principal Micah Landers prohibited a senior from wearing that shirt that read “Some People Are Gay, Get Over It” because it might provoke other students. The school’s dress code policy prohibited clothing and accessories that reference “drugs, alcohol, sex, obscenities or prove to be a disturbing influence.”
The lawsuit, Rebecca Young v. Giles County Board of Education, et al., stemmed from an incident on August 5, 2015, when Young wore a shirt to school that read, “Some People Are Gay, Get Over It.” At the end of the school day, the principal publicly reprimanded Young for wearing the shirt, telling her that she could not wear that shirt or any other shirt referencing lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender rights to school because it supposedly made her a target and provoked other students. Young had worn the shirt the entire day without incident.
Young explained that the pushback only made her more committed to standing up for LGBTQ people.
“I just want my school to be a safe place for all students, free from harassment or discrimination,” Young said at the suit’s filing. “Wearing the shirt was a way to express my support for gay people and for treating them with respect. The censorship I experienced clearly shows why I felt the need to use my voice this way in the first place.”
The ACLU argued that schools can only censor student speech when it disrupts the learning process, and that other students’ disruptive reactions to that speech don’t count.
Since the suit was filed, the Giles County Board of Education has removed the discriminatory policy from its dress code, as part of an update unrelated to the lawsuit.
The new dress code no longer specifies certain types of speech as off limits, but rather prohibits students from wearing any kind of political message. According to The Tennessean, students can no longer wear apparel with writing on it, except for trademark logos and school-approved slogans.
“We really didn’t have a very clear dress code policy,” Wright told The Tennessean. “It basically stated the student could wear anything as long it wasn’t offensive.
Still, the ACLU says the judge’s clear statement reinforces the constitutional rights of students.
“Our settlement reinforces that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director, in a statement. “We are pleased that Giles County students will no longer face unjust censorship if they choose to express support for the LGBT community while at school.”