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Girl Can Wear Pro-Gay Shirt to School After SPLC Intervenes

Girl Can Wear Pro-Gay Shirt to School After SPLC Intervenes

 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Wednesday sent a letter to Hoover High School in Alabama threatening a lawsuit and reminding administrators of pupils’ First Amendment rights after school staff made one girl take off a t-shirt with a pro-gay slogan over supposed concerns for her safety. Fortunately the SPLC reports the school has now reversed its decision.

The shirt worn by 15-year-old Sara Couvillon carries the slogan “gay? fine by me” and is similar to the one pictured above except in black.

According to reports, Couvillon said she wore the shirt throughout the previous school year without incident and so when she was told to take it off because of safety concerns she didn’t think it was fair. That’s when the SPLC got involved and on Wednesday sent a letter to the school informing them of an impending lawsuit if they didn’t reverse the decision.

The letter sent by Samuel Wolfe, staff attorney for the SPLC, contained the following:

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.

Moreover, even if there are students who will act disruptively in reaction to Sara’s t-shirt, the school has a duty to punish the disruptive students, not to prohibit Sara’s speech.

[...]

By censoring Sara out of concern that other students would behave disruptively, your school has allowed those disruptive students to exercise a “heckler’s veto” over Sara’s free speech rights. The First Amendment does not permit such an outcome.

The letter goes on to ask the school to rescind its “unlawful” policy by no later than close of business on Monday, September 12, or “we [the SPLC] intend to file a federal lawsuit seeking full redress, including but not limited to injunctive and declaratory relief, damages, and attorneys’ fees and expenses.”

The school quickly released a statement following receipt of the letter saying that, in keeping with its culture of “tolerance and understanding”, it respects the rights of students to exercise their free speech ”unless such expression disrupts the learning environment or deprives the rights of others.” The statement did not mention Couvillon’s case directly or indicate what course of action the school might choose. You can read the full statement here.

Now, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports the matter has been resolved and the school has amended its decision:

The SPLC praised officials at an Alabama high school today for restoring the right of a student to wear a T-shirt expressing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people.

[...]

“We are incredibly happy that the officials at Hoover High School acted so quickly to restore the rights of this brave student,” said Sam Wolfe, staff attorney for the SPLC. “However, while the outcome is a good one, it is unfortunate that this fundamental right was denied in the first place.”

Couvillon said, “I’m very relieved and I feel like this is a major victory for the LGBT community in Alabama. This was not just about me – it was about encouraging people to be brave in standing up for themselves and standing up for their rights.”

Couvillon has said all along that she routinely wore the shirt not so much for herself but to let other students who may be questioning their sexuality or gender identity know that they are not alone.

As the SPLC letter to the school noted, a federal court in Florida previously ruled that the Florida school board acted unconstitutionally in prohibiting students from wearing pro-gay symbols or slogans — this included the message on Couvillon’s shirt. You can read more about that case here.

Related Reading:

Australian School Kids Asked if Being Gay is “Sickest Sin”

ACLU Sues Missouri School District Over Alleged Censorship

GLSEN Issues FRC Hate Group a Cease and Desist Order

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Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to bbheart.

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45 comments

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9:17PM PDT on Sep 6, 2011

Slogans on t-shirts are here to stay, and have been in circulation since Riley Hopkins developed the silk screening machine. School banning freedom of speech is not the way to encourage freedom of thought.
Private schools live by their private business rules,( but still have to adhere to federal anti- discrimination laws), and public schools survive (thanks to our collective tax dollars), to teach our children living skills, how to be prepared intellectually for their financial future, etc., and basic principles.. one of which is freedom of speech, (and they must also adhere to federal anti discrimination laws).
If Michelle Bachmann can have t-shirts, bumper stickers and public meetings to spread her dysfunctional anti gay baloney,(and as a publicly elected official breaks the federal anti-discrimination laws citing her freedom of speech rights), I say a girl wearing a t-shirt which merely states 'gay, fine by me.' is rather subtle and well done!


9:14PM PDT on Sep 6, 2011

Kudos to the SPLC for defending this girl's First Amendment rights, though I find it odd that the school had no prob w/her wearing this shirt all this time, then suddenly did a 180...did some Religious Right organization get to them?

11:39PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

I love the SPLC, my favorite organization. For decades, they have fought for peoples' civil rights, documented hate crimes and organizations around the U.S., provided "tolerance teaching packets" for teachers, and prosecuted discrimination in court, often winning large awards for the plaintiffs. My favorite was when the mother of a lynched man was awarded the compound (acres and acres of land) of the local KKK. They do good work, trying to teach tolerance as a means to ending racism. I support them monthly, and think so highly of them, that they are in my will.

7:59PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

Hmmm...Fred K, On what enlightened planet did you go to high school where in the 1970's a gay slogan T-shirt was non-controversial? I mean, my God, in 1980 when I went on my first Gay Pride March, people wore paper bags over their heads to avoid being fired, evicted, you name it...Myself, I not only changed my hair color and eyeglasses, I went in whiteface to avoid being identified. I'm a little older than you; in my high school neither gender of student would have been allowed to wear any kind of T-shirt, not even plain! Girls couldn't even wear slacks.

7:45PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

Uh, Faye, the only reason our local schools switched to uniforms was to prevent bullying and theft based on high-end name-brand clothing worn to school by some. I thought school was also where we as young people were also taught to think critically. Shielding young people from current social issues does not encourage critical thinking; it rather dulls any thought at all. We don't want automatons for a next generation.

4:25PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

What if the t-shirt slogan offends gays?

9:20PM PDT on Sep 2, 2011

@Tami M. Why do you get the impression she is gay? The shirt has "gay? fine by me" on it. Where does it say anything about her sexual preference.

8:47PM PDT on Sep 2, 2011

I'm surprised the ACLU wasn't in on this - seems like the SPLC beat them to the punch! p.s., I'm a supporter of both groups, so it really doesn't matter who get the credit. Peace.

7:23PM PDT on Sep 2, 2011

nothing wrong with the shirt! By the way, being gay has little to do with the bedroom! it is the way a person is, not their sex life! Why is that always the first thing people tend to address??

6:07PM PDT on Sep 2, 2011

The SPLC is always there on the side of teaching tolerance. They are the best.

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