News - March 1996

Anti-gay school censorship challenged in First Amendment case

On Feb. 15, a group of parents and educators from Merrimack, NH filed a lawsuit in federal District Court in Concord, NH challenging the anti-gay censorship policy passed by the Merrimack School Board in August, 1995. The policy has led to the removal of topics from the curriculum and the elimination of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night from a high school English class.

The challenged policy provides that any school instruction or counseling which has "the effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative" is banned in the schools.

Today's suit argues that this gag order is harmful to Merrimack students, violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech and the right to receive information, and has triggered a tidal wave of self-censorship by educators and students who are trying to comply with it.

Other anti-gay curriculum policies have been adopted by state and local governments in Alabama, Arizona, New York and elsewhere. However, this is the first constitutional challenge to such censorship in the public schools.

In announcing the filing of the case, the parents and educators explained that the broad censorship imposed by the policy has caused teachers and students to cut off class discussions, remove books, topics and audio-visual aids from the curriculum, and stifle student inquiries.

"The policy harms Merrimack students who need the freedom to think, the freedom to learn and the freedom to investigate and discuss ideas," stated Susan Ruggeri, the President of the Merrimack Teachers Association, a plaintiff in the suit.

Debra Herget, another plaintiff and a parent of three children in the Merrimack schools, said the time had come for parents to resort to the legal system to stop the policy. "This Policy hurts and distorts the education of students every day. Now is the right time to put an end to it and return to the sound policies which have always guided our children's education in the past."

A coalition of civil rights legal organizations is representing the parents and educators in their legal challenge to the Policy: the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union; Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders; People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Richard W. Walker, a plaintiff in the suit who is a longtime resident of Merrimack, a parent of children in the schools, and the Coordinator of Guidance Services at the High School said "the policy prevents counselors from doing their job of helping children in need," and that "students are reluctant to ask for help. All students deserve support and guidance when they need it."

Daniel O'Donnell, another Merrimack resident who joined the suit on behalf of his children, emphasized that the policy "is in direct conflict with the other educational policies and values of the school district. Students need the freedom to learn and an environment where they are all safe."

"There has never been a gag order on our schools quite like this one," stated Claire Ebel, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. "If students and teachers want to discuss or investigate issues related to homosexuality, or a counselor is asked for help by a child in need, they can say nothing unless it is negative."

"You know that something is terribly wrong when teachers believe they can't teach Shakespeare or discuss information about gay youth suicide because of a so-called educational policy," added attorney Mary L. Bonauto of Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a New England-wide legal organization. "The negative viewpoint on homosexuality prescribed by the policy is actually anti-educational because it keeps students from discussing everything from current events to classics of literature to the merits of the policy itself. This suit is a reminder that freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment apply in the public schools to protect students and teachers from government censorship."

"This policy does exactly what the First Amendment prohibits: it imposes an official government viewpoint and attempts to brainwash students to accept that viewpoint," said Ruth E. Harlow, of the national ACLU. "We hope this suit will lift the policy's pall of orthodoxy and set a useful precedent for eliminating similar policies in other communities." Marjorie Heins of the national ACLU's Arts Censorship Project is also co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

"In the name of values, the Merrimack school board is promoting ideological censorship and intolerance," said People For the American Way Vice President Tom Andrews. "The teachers, parents and students here are standing up for different values -- freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, respect for others and responsible educational policy. These basic American values are under attack not only in Merrimack, but across the country. It's important for concerned citizens to stand up and defend those values. That's what is happening here."

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