Wristband Ban Violates Gay Student’s First Amendment Rights
PEORIA, AZ – After a school principal told a gay 14-year-old student to turn his rainbow wristband inside-out or stop wearing it to school, the American Civil Liberties Union today demanded that the school district rescind its ban of the wristband. In a letter sent to Peoria Unified School District, the ACLU said that the principal’s demand violates Chris Quintanilla’s constitutional rights, pointing to a 40-year-old landmark Supreme Court decision guaranteeing students’ free speech and expression.
“When I asked my son’s principal why he wouldn’t be allowed to wear his wristband to school anymore, he said some teachers found it offensive,” said Natali Quintanilla, mother of the eighth grader whose wristband was banned. “My son is honest and happy about who he is, and I love him and support his right to be himself. There are a lot of things teachers should be more concerned about than one little wristband – like educating our children.”
Quintanilla contacted the ACLU last month after her son Chris’s principal told her he wouldn’t allow her son to wear his cloth wristband with words “Rainbows are gay” to school anymore. When her son was harassed for being gay earlier this school year, Quintanilla said the same principal told her, “If he didn’t put it out there the way he does, he wouldn’t have much of a problem.”
“The Supreme Court has held that students have a right to free speech at school, and that includes gay students. The ACLU has won dozens of cases over the years where schools have tried to get away with illegal censorship,” said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney for the ACLU national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “A handful of teachers supposedly working themselves into a tizzy over one little wristband is hardly an excuse for violating Chris Quintanilla’s right to free speech.”
Today’s letter refers to 1969’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the Court wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights... at the schoolhouse gate.” The letter also points to Gillman v. Holmes County School District, a Florida case in which a high school principal had attempted to ban rainbows at school. In that case, a federal judge ruled last May that the school had violated students’ First Amendment rights. Both cases were handled by the ACLU, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Tinker decision last month.
“When schools censor students like this, they are failing one of the most important civics lessons there is,” said Dan Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona. “Schools should respect the Constitution and encourage all students – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight – to appreciate and exercise their freedoms, rather than illegally trying to silence them.”
The ACLU has given the school ten days to respond to its letter, a copy of which is available at http://www.aclu.org/pdfs/lgbt/schoolsyouth/az_armb_letter.pdf.
In recent years, the ACLU has used Tinker often to protect the free speech rights of LGBT students and their friends, including:
* In 2007, a teacher in Portsmouth, Virginia told Bethany Laccone, a lesbian 17-year-old senior, that she shouldn't be wearing a t-shirt with an image of two overlapping female gender symbols at school and then sent her to the assistant principal's office. The assistant principal and the teacher then told Bethany that the shirt violated a section of the school dress code that bans “bawdy, salacious or sexually suggestive messages.” After receiving a letter citing Tinker from the ACLU, school officials apologized to Bethany and let her wear the shirt to school again.
* In 2006, a high school student in Dublin, Ohio was told to take off a t-shirt that read “I support gay marriage” by school administrators. The next day, about 20 students protested the action by coming to school in similar t-shirts. They were required to change their t-shirts, turn them inside-out, or go home. After the ACLU sent a demand letter on behalf of 16-year-old Zach Hust, one of the students punished for wearing the shirts, the school backed down, announcing publicly that it would no longer illegally censor students who expressed their views through their t-shirts.
* In 2003, school officials in Jacksonville, Arkansas punished 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin for talking between classes with a female friend about a boy they both considered “cute.” He was disciplined; his friend was not. Later, school officials forced him to read aloud from the Bible in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as punishment after Thomas, who is himself a Christian, disagreed with a teacher for calling him “abnormal” and “unnatural.” The school then suspended him for two days for telling other students about being made to read the Bible in school and told him that if he told any of his friends why he was suspended, he would be expelled. After the ACLU sued, the school district issued a formal apology to Thomas and his parents, created policies protecting students from anti-gay discrimination and harassment at school, and agreed to pay a total of $25,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
A video about the rainbow ban that led to the Gillman case can be seen at http://www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/38778res20090224.html.