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ACLU sues Florida Panhandle high school for suppressing speech in support of gay students

ACLU news release:

PONCE DE LEON, FL – A Florida high school has been trampling the First Amendment rights of students who support equal rights for gay people, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union.  In its lawsuit, the ACLU describes an atmosphere of fear and censorship at Ponce de Leon High School, where the school board’s attorney says even expressions like a rainbow sticker may mean students are members of an “illegal organization.”  Ponce de Leon High School is located in Holmes County in the Florida Panhandle.

“All any of us wants to do is be able to talk about gay rights issues without having to be scared,” said Heather Gillman, a 16-year-old junior and straight student at the school.  “Nobody should have to worry about being kicked out of school just for having a rainbow sticker on your notebook.”

The ACLU sent a letter in November to the school board’s attorney on behalf of Gillman, asking for clarification as to whether a variety of symbols and slogans, such as the rainbow flag or “I support my gay friends,” would be allowed at the school.  The school district replied that it would not allow any expressions of support for gay rights at all because such speech would “likely be disruptive.” The district then went even further, claiming that such symbols and slogans were signs that students were part of a “secret/illegal organization.”  The letter was sent after Gillman and other students approached the ACLU about an atmosphere in which students say they were routinely intimidated by school officials and prohibited from engaging in such behavior as writing “gay pride” on their arms and notebooks or wearing rainbow-themed clothing.  According to students, problems began in September when a lesbian student tried to report to school officials that she was being harassed by other students.  Instead of addressing the harassment, students say school officials responded with intimidation and censorship.

“Because the Supreme Court has held that students have a right to free speech at school unless that speech disrupts the educational process, many administrators think they can just slap the label ‘disruptive’ on anything they don’t like and get away with stomping on students’ First Amendment rights.  The law doesn’t work that way,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, ACLU of Florida staff attorney who is representing Gillman. .  “School should be a marketplace of ideas, where students share new ideas and learn about themselves and others.  Just talking about gay rights or any other topic outside of class isn’t inherently disruptive.”

In the complaint filed today, the ACLU asked the court for an injunction to stop Ponce de Leon High School officials from suppressing students’ First Amendment rights in the future.

“Writing something like ‘I support gay rights’ on your notebook doesn’t mean you’re part of some secret conspiracy or shadowy organization,” said Christine Sun, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.  “Schools shouldn’t be in the business of trying to frighten students into silence.”

Ponce de Leon High School is located in Holmes County, 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 and Sun of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.

Gillman v. Holmes County School District, case no. 5:08-cv-34 was filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division.  The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Richard Smoak. A copy of today’s complaint as well as the ACLU’s earlier letter and the school’s response can be downloaded at http://www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/33859res20080131.html

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


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