ACLU Demands Protection for Students’ Rights to Free Speech
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 4, 2011
Lindsay Kee, ACLU of Tennessee, (615) 320-7142 x 304
Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666
MADISONVILLE, Tenn. – A 17-year-old senior at Sequoyah High School was reportedly shoved, bumped in the chest and verbally harassed by his principal last week for wearing a T-shirt in support of efforts to establish a gayaight alliance (GSA) club on campus. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee sent a letter to the school district today demanding that students’ rights to free speech be protected in the classroom.
The ACLU has been assisting the student, Chris Sigler, in his and other students’ efforts to overcome resistance from school officials to establish a GSA. Principal Maurice Moser had previously threatened to punish students who circulated petitions about the club.
“It is totally unacceptable that a young man who was peacefully exercising his First Amendment rights would have his speech shut down by the public school principal,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Last week’s incident clearly illustrates the hostile environment LGBT students face at Sequoyah High School. Given this context, it’s especially important that supportive voices like Sigler’s can be heard in order to overcome the school’s resistance to a GSA.”
Sigler wore a homemade T-shirt to school last Tuesday that said “GSA: We’ve Got Your Back.” A teacher ordered Sigler to cover up the shirt in the future. Sigler, knowing he had a right to wear the shirt, wore it again Friday, and resisted an order to remove the shirt. Sigler says that Moser then ordered all students out of the classroom, except for Sigler’s sister Jessica, who refused to leave. According to both students, Moser then grabbed Sigler’s arm, shoved him, and chest-bumped him repeatedly while asking “Who’s the big man now?” Sigler’s mother reported that when she arrived at the school, she saw her son seated in a desk with Moser leaning over him and shouting in Sigler’s face. The Siglers filed a report about the incident that afternoon with the Madisonville Police Department.
“All I want is to have a GSA at my school to help stop the bullying against gays and lesbians and their friends who support them,” Sigler said. “The shirt was a way to use my voice and show my support for the club. The way I was treated shows even more why we need a GSA here.”
“All students deserve a safe and respectful learning environment. Harassment, abuse or censorship of any student – regardless of sexual orientation – is absolutely reprehensible as well as illegal,” said Amanda Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “We expect the police to investigate this quickly and fairly, and take statements from all witnesses who were present.”
The demand letter to the school district can be viewed here.
An image of the shirt can be seen here.