Last week, two students at Celina High School celebrated “Twin Day” with T-shirts that read “Lesbian 1” and “Lesbian 2,” but they were forced to remove them. In response, some 20 students went to school Tuesday wearing home-made T-shirts that read “I Support… [Rainbow] Express Yourself” and “Straight but Supportive,” a show of support organized by sophomore Jimmy Walter. Assistant Principal Phil Metz forced all the students to remove the shirts because they were “political,” and those who did not were given detention with the threat of suspension.
Though Metz and Principal Jason Luebke have yet to respond, Superintendent Jesse Steiner offered this weak defense for the disciplinary action:
STEINER: The only reason they would be told that they couldn’t wear something is if it is a disruption of the educational process, or if it’s not allowed in the handbook. And there’s a line in our handbook about drawing undue attention to yourself.
It’s true that the student handbook limits dress that could “materially interfere with school work, create disorder, or disrupt the educational program,” but Steiner’s interpretation of that policy in this case is grossly unconstitutional.
ACLU Ohio points out that this is considered a “heckler’s veto,” an attempt to shut down free speech that the administrators in the very conservative district happen to disagree with. Erick Warrner, a Celina junior who brought attention to this situation on Reddit, points out that plenty of “political” dress is regularly tolerated at the school, including “Students for Life” anti-choice T-shirts with pictures of fetuses, as well as blatantly political shirts supporting Mitt Romney for President or calling President Obama a socialist. In fact, just this week the school hosted a Romney campaign event at which Paul Ryan spoke.
Both the students and the school are consulting lawyers, but it’s clear the students would have a winning case. In the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court ruled that “state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism” and students are entitled to free speech so long as it does not “interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Benignly gay-supportive t-shirts come nowhere close to meeting that standard. If anybody disrupted the educational process, it was the administrators who removed the students from the classroom and violated their First Amendment rights.