(No. 1:15-cv-00107, United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Columbia Division, District Judge Kevin H. Sharp)

ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney: Mark J. Downton, Downton & Clark, PLLC

Plaintiff: Rebecca Young

Defendants: Giles County Board of Education; Phillip J. Wright, in his individual and official capacity as Director of Schools for Giles County; and Micah Landers, in his individual and official capacity as Principal of Richland High School.

On August 5, 2015, high school student Rebecca Young wore a shirt to school that read, “Some People Are Gay, Get Over It.” At the end of the day, the school principal called Young up in front of a cafeteria full of students and publically reprimanded her for wearing the shirt. He told her that she could not wear that shirt or any other shirt referencing lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender rights to school because it supposedly made her a target and provoked other students, though Young had worn the shirt the entire day without incident.

When the student’s mother, Gelinda Young, spoke with school representatives, she was told that the shirt violated the dress code policy against any material of a “sexual nature,” and that any clothing with a pro-LGBT message, including a rainbow symbol, would not be tolerated.

ACLU-TN sent a letter to the school system on August 18, 2015 explaining that schools can only censor student speech when the speech itself – and not other people’s reaction to it – is disruptive to the educational process. The letter also explained that school officials’ claims that LGBT-positive expression is sexually suggestive is an obvious mischaracterization of the speech.

The school system’s response indicated that it stood by the principal’s decision and the prohibition of pro-LGBT expression.

ACLU-TN filed a lawsuit in federal court. The lawsuit argued that the school system’s clothing policy was an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on pro-LGBT speech, which violated Young and her peers’ First Amendment rights.

A federal district court granted Young a preliminary injunction ordering the ban on pro-LGBT clothing lifted, stating “student expression on LGBT issues is speech on a purely political topic, which falls clearly within the ambit of the First Amendment's protection.”

The school board and principal filed a motion to lift the injunction, arguing that the restriction actually protected Young from bullying.

The judge kept the preliminary injunction in place, writing “[w]ithout even blinking at the irony of this tactic, Defendants assert that their previous inability to protect Plaintiff from bullying now gives them free rein to restrict her self-expression.”

While the case was pending, the Giles County Board of Education modified its dress code policy for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit. However, the change in its discriminatory policy addressed Young’s concerns. Since the new dress code no longer singles out one type of speech for censorship, the case was settled. On August 15, 2016, a settlement agreement was announced.

Related Documents

Press Releases
ACLU-TN Settles Free Speech Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Student (August 15, 2016)
ACLU-TN Files Lawsuit Challenging School Censorship of Pro-LGBT Shirt (November 23, 2015)

Blog Posts
Censored: “Some People Are Gay, Get Over It” (December 23, 2015)

Legal Documents
Rebecca Young v. Giles County Board of Education, et al. - Letter to Giles County Schools (August 18, 2015)
Rebecca Young v. Giles County Board of Education, et al. - Complaint (November 23, 2015)