Court Rules That Mississippi School Violated First Amendment Rights Of Lesbian Student

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Alternative MSSC Prom Open To All Students Will Be Held May 8

ABERDEEN, MS – A Mississippi federal court ruled that school officials violated a lesbian student’s First Amendment rights when it canceled the high school prom rather than let the student attend with her girlfriend. The U.S. Court for the Northern District of Mississippi stopped short of ordering Itawamba Agricultural High School to put the school prom back on the calendar because of assurances that an alternative “private” prom being planned by parents would be open to all students. The American Civil Liberties Union had requested a preliminary injunction stopping the Itawamba County School District from canceling the prom and from prohibiting Constance McMillen from bringing her girlfriend as a date and wearing a tuxedo to the event.

“It feels really good that the court realized that the school was violating my rights and discriminating against me by canceling the prom. All I ever wanted was for my school to treat me and my girlfriend like any other couple that wants to go to prom,” said McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi. “Now we can all get back to things like picking out our prom night outfits and thinking about corsages.”

In the 12-page ruling, the court wrote, “The record shows Constance has been openly gay since eighth grade and she intended to communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and to express her identity through attending prom with a same-sex date. The Court finds this expression and communication of her viewpoint is the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment. The Court is also of the opinion that the motive behind the School Board's cancellation of the prom, or withdrawal of their sponsorship, was Constance’s requests and the ACLU’s demand letter sent on her behalf.” Further, the court says that since the school represented the private prom being organized by parents at a furniture store as open to all students, then the court expects that event will indeed invite McMillen and her girlfriend.

McMillen said that she plans to attend the “private” prom, but has also long planned to attend the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition’s Second Chance Prom, to be held Saturday, May 8 in Tupelo. That event, sponsored by Green Day, Tonic.com, Iron Chef Cat Cora, and Lance Bass, among others, will be open to all LGBT students in the state, as well as straight students who are LGBT-supportive. The MSSC and the ACLU deal every year with complaints from LGBT students all over Mississippi who face resistance from their schools about bringing same-sex dates to proms or who don’t feel safe going to their own school proms.

“Today’s ruling isn’t just a win for Constance and her girlfriend – it’s a win for all the students at her school, and for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students who just want to be able to be themselves at school without being treated unfairly,” said Kristy Bennett, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Public schools can’t just stomp on students’ free expression rights just because they don't want to deal with these students, and if schools do try to do that they’ll be dealing with us.”

“We are grateful and happy that IAHS’s attempt to cancel the prom has been seen for the thinly-veiled ruse to violate Constance McMillen’s First Amendment rights that we always knew it was,” said Christine P. Sun, Senior Counsel with the ACLU national LGBT Project, who represents McMillen along with the ACLU of Mississippi. “These school officials should be ashamed of themselves for trying to scapegoat a young girl and then trying to lay the blame for their bad behavior at her feet.”

McMillen’s case attracted national attention and dozens of offers to host or help fund an alternative independent prom from around the country after school officials announced they were canceling the IAHS prom. The school board canceled IAHS’ prom shortly after the ACLU and the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition demanded that the district reverse its decision to prohibit McMillen from attending the prom with her girlfriend, also a student at IAHS. According to McMillen, school officials told her that she could not arrive at the prom with her girlfriend and that they might be thrown out if any other students complained about their presence at the April 2 event. Since McMillen’s case was filed, a Facebook page set up for her case has attracted over 400,000 supporters to date.

McMillen is represented by Bennett and Sun, as well as by Norman C. Simon and Joshua Glick of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, and Alysson Mills of New Orleans.

The case name is Constance McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, et al. Additional information is available at http://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/fulton-ms-prom-discrimination. There is also a Facebook group for people who want to support McMillen, “Let Constance Bring Her Girlfriend to the Prom,” at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Let-Constance-Take-Her-Girlfriend-to-Prom/....

The Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition was formed in the fall of 2008 to address discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, or students perceived to be LGBT, in Mississippi public schools and colleges. The MSSC works closely with the ACLU of Mississippi to educate teachers, students, and administrators about the rights of LGBT students with the aim of making schools safer for all. The MSSC is youth-led, and any questions about student rights at prom, starting a gay-straight alliance club, or any other safe schools issues can be directed to Ashley Jackson, facilitator, at ashley@mssafeschools.org. More information about MSSC and the Second Chance Prom can be found at the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition website at http://mssafeschools.org/.