Last April, high school student Amber Hatcher announced she would be participating in the National Day of Silence, a nationwide protest to raise awareness about anti-LGBT bullying, and sought permission in advance from her school administrators in Desoto County, Florida. Her principal threatened “ramifications” if she participated and even called her parents suggesting they keep her home because there “would be consequences.” Lambda Legal reached out to the school informing administrators of students’ rights, but they chose not to respond, instead emailing teachers to notify the principal if anybody was participating. Amber followed through, and was subsequently suspended for the day.
Lambda Legal has now filed suit against the school on Amber’s behalf. The complaint includes the full text of the email Principal Shannon Fusco sent to teachers advising about the protest:
Please note that we have a group of students today who have an intention of protesting. The district has an absolute policy against protesting on school campuses.
If you have students who are wearing placard [sic] in protest of an issue or disrupting the hallways or classrooms, please notify the dean or administration, and we will handle it.
If a student refuses to participate in class by taking part in a silent protest, that is considered a disruption. Again, please notify the administration, and we will handle it.
It’s been over 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled that students have a right to participate in protests in schools. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Court ruled that it was a violation of students’s First Amendment rights to suspend them for wearing black armbands to protest the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. Like the students in that case, Amber was participating in class and simply remaining silent to indicate her position. The school was completely in the wrong for blocking her free expression, and it’s unfortunate a lawsuit is required for the administrators to learn that lesson.