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.
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.