CONTACT Lindsay Kee, ACLU-TN communications director, (615) 320-7142
NASHVILLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed a lawsuit in federal court today to protect students’ right to free speech in Giles County Schools. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Richland High School senior Rebecca Young, who was censored by the school system after she wore a shirt to school supporting equality for lesbian and gay people.
“Censoring Rebecca for wearing a shirt just because it has the word ‘gay’ on it not only violates her right to free speech, it sends a harmful message to students that there is something wrong with being gay, or even using the word ‘gay’,” said ACLU-TN legal director Thomas H. Castelli. “Students have a First Amendment right not only to be out at school, but to an education free from such discrimination and harassment.”
The lawsuit stemmed from an incident on August 5, 2015, when 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 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 mis-characterization of the speech.’”
“I just want my school to be a safe place for all students, free from harassment or discrimination,” said Rebecca Young. “Wearing the shirt was a way to express my support for gay people and for treating them with respect. The censorship I experienced clearly shows why I felt the need to use my voice this way in the first place.”
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. In addition to Castelli, the Young family is being represented by ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Mark Downton of The Law Office of Mark J. Downton.
ACLU-TN’s initial letter to Giles County Schools can be found here.
The complaint filed today can be found here.