Last week, student Dawn Henderson of DeSoto Middle School wore a shirt to school bearing the message "Some Kids are Gay. That's OK." In return for her support of the gay community, the school's principal ordered her to change her shirt or go home, censoring her speech in violation of her legal rights.
The ACLU of Louisiana has sent a letter to the Principal, Keith Simmons, explaining that students have the First Amendment right to express their opinions, including on t-shirt slogans, as long as the school allows clothing with slogans. "Students do not give up their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate," said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman. "To allow students to express one kind of opinion but not another is the very definition of censorship, and it violates the Constitutional rights of students like Dawn Henderson, who may have views different from those of her school Principal."
DeSoto school officials claimed that the shirt slogan was "distracting," although no incident of disruption was attributed to it. "Had there been a disruption because of Dawn's shirt slogan, those causing the trouble are the ones who would properly be subject to discipline," said Esman. "To punish the speaker for how others react is to blame the victim, and forces people to restrict their speech only to what they think others may want to hear. This is not the way a free society engages in public debate."
"Schools should encourage discussion of issues of public concern, and especially issues about which there may be conflicting opinions," Esman continued. "Sending Dawn home for wearing a shirt with the word 'gay' on it not only trampled her right to freedom of expression, but also sent a destructive message to all students that there is something wrong with being gay or even saying the word 'gay.' A school is the best place to encourage young people to share opinions. It is not the place to violate the legal rights of students whose views might differ from those of school authorities."
The open letter may be read here.