Move Comes After ACLU Letter To School District
RAMONA, CA – A California school has apologized to a sixth grader for illegally censoring her classroom presentation about Harvey Milk last month, and school officials promise they won't engage in unconstitutional restriction of similar free speech in the future. The apology comes after the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter on May 30 to the Ramona Unified School District about its violation of the student's free speech rights when it refused to allow her to give the presentation in class. Wrongly citing a school policy on sex education, the school had improperly required classmates to get parental permission to see the presentation during a lunch recess. The student was allowed to give her presentation in class this morning.
"Harvey Milk always stood up for his beliefs and what was right, so I felt like I should do the same thing when my school told me they wouldn't let me do my presentation," said Natalie Jones, a sixth grader at Mt. Woodson Elementary School. "I worked really hard on my presentation and I'm glad I'm finally going to get to share it with all of my classmates like everyone else got to."
The assignment, part of an independent research project class, was to prepare a written report on any topic. Natalie, who was inspired to write about Harvey Milk after watching Sean Penn win an Academy Award for portraying him, got a score of 49 out of a possible 50 points on the written report. Students were then told to make PowerPoint presentations about their reports, which they would show to other students in the class. The day before Natalie was to give her 12-page presentation she was called into the principal's office and told she couldn't do so. When her mother spoke with the superintendent about the presentation, she was told Natalie couldn't give her presentation because of a district board policy on "Family Life/Sex Education." A few days later, the school sent letters to parents of students in the class, explaining that her presentation would be held during a lunch recess on May 8, and that students could only attend if they had parental permission due to the allegedly "sensitive" nature of the topic.
"Instead of quaking at the mere mention of an LGBT person's existence, schools must understand that talking about someone who happens to be gay is no more sexual in nature than talking about a person who happens to be heterosexual," said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "Censoring Natalie's presentation violated the First Amendment and the California Education Code, and we're pleased she will finally get to give her presentation on a historical figure who was such a fierce advocate for the rights of not just LGBT Californians but of all people."
The school district has agreed to all the demands the ACLU made on Natalie Jones's behalf:
* The school has apologized in writing to Natalie and sent a letter about that apology to all the parents who were sent the school's letter about the presentation.
* The school allowed Natalie to give her presentation to all the other members of her independent research project class.
* The school has agreed to bring its "Family Life/Sex Education" policy into compliance with state law, and acknowledged that the mention or acknowledgement of a person's sexual orientation is not sufficient to invoke the statutes and policies on sex education.
"If the school had taken a moment to consider its legal obligation to respect and uphold its students' free speech rights instead of jumping to erroneous conclusions and trying to justify its actions by wrongly conflating Natalie's historical presentation with sex education, this would never have happened," said Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with the ACLU national LGBT Project. "There's a tremendous difference between sex education and writing or talking about someone who happens to be gay, and we're glad we were able to help the school finally understand that."
"I'm always proud of my daughter, of course, but I'm even more proud of her for the way she stood up for her rights," said Bonnie Jones, Natalie's mother. "We've also heard from many people in town and other parents at Natalie's school who have been amazingly supportive. I think if Harvey Milk were still here today, he'd be happy about how this all worked out."
Harvey Milk, one of Time Magazine's "Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century" in 1999, has been the subject of several books, an opera, a documentary film that won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, and a feature film released last year that won two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor. Milk's birthday is the subject of a bill pending in the California legislature that would make it a state holiday.
For additional information, including a video featuring an interview with Natalie, copies of the school's apology to Natalie and its letter to parents of students in her class, Natalie's presentation on Harvey Milk, the school's letter to parents, and the Ramona U.S.D. "Family Life/Sex Education" policy, can be found online at www.aclu.org/milk