Some are hopeful that the attention brought to LGBT bullying over the past year will make schools safer this year, but Hoover High School in Alabama is not off to a very good start. School officials told 15-year-old Sara Couvillon that she shouldn’t wear her “gay? fine by me” t-shirt because they were “concerned for her safety.” The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter today threatening to sue the school on her behalf (PDF):
Indeed, a federal court has already ruled that a school cannot prevent its students from wearing the very expression that you censored. In Gillman v. School Board for Holmes County, Florida, the school board banned students from wearing pro-gay symbols or slogans such as “I support Gays,” “I Support My Gay Friends,” and “Gay? Fine By Me.” In striking down the ban, the court held that the slogans were “not vulgar, lewd, obscene, plainly offensive, or violent, but [were] pure, political, and expresse[d] tolerance, acceptance, fairness, and support” for a marginalized group. The court ruled that by banning such slogans, the school board violated the students’ free speech rights under the First Amendment and discriminated against their viewpoint in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition to striking down the school’s ban, the court also ordered the school board to pay $325,000 for the students’ legal fees and expenses.
Evidently, officials at your school told Sara that she could not wear the shirt because they were “concerned for her safety.” Yet, Sara did not experience any threats of violence, nor did the officials tell Sara that there were threats of violence against gay students from which disruption could have, or did, result. In fact, Sara had routinely worn the t-shirt during the previous school year without incident. Therefore, the officials’ stated reason for the censorship was unfounded and unsubstantiated.
It’s disappointing that the school would choose to avoid “controversy” over taking the proper measures to protect students like Couvillon from bullying. Her shirt serves to fight anti-gay stigma and affirm her classmates, but her school would deprive her of the opportunity to stand up for them. The 2009 GLSEN study of school climates found that having LGBT-supportive staff helps students not only feel safer, but also perform better academically. Hopefully, SPLC’s threat is a wake-up call for Hoover High to create a more welcoming environment for its students.