A Louisiana middle school student was sent home last week when she refused to remove a t-shirt that had on it a slogan supporting gay people. The principal said that the t-shirt was “distracting.” The ACLU is calling this a breach of First Amendment rights.
While students at North DeSoto Middle School in Stonewall, Louisiana, are normally required to wear a uniform, Dawn Henderson, an eighth grader, had earned the right to come to school in casual attire. According to reports, she also covered the shirt with a zip-up sweatshirt.
This was not enough for her Principal, Keith Simmons, who told her she would have to change the shirt or go home. Henderson was not disciplined following this incident but she does allege that no one had remarked on the t-shirt until Principal Simmons made an issue out of it.
Last week, student Dawn Henderson of DeSoto Middle School wore a shirt to school bearing the message “Some Kids are Gay. That’s OK.” In return for her support of the gay community, the school’s principal ordered her to change her shirt or go home, censoring her speech in violation of her legal rights.
The ACLU of Louisiana has sent a letter to the Principal, Keith Simmons, explaining that students have the First Amendment right to express their opinions, including on t-shirt slogans, as long as the school allows clothing with slogans. “Students do not give up their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman. “To allow students to express one kind of opinion but not another is the very definition of censorship, and it violates the Constitutional rights of students like Dawn Henderson, who may have views different from those of her school Principal.”
DeSoto school officials claimed that the shirt slogan was “distracting,” although no incident of disruption was attributed to it. “Had there been a disruption because of Dawn’s shirt slogan, those causing the trouble are the ones who would properly be subject to discipline,” said Esman. “To punish the speaker for how others react is to blame the victim, and forces people to restrict their speech only to what they think others may want to hear. This is not the way a free society engages in public debate.”
“Schools should encourage discussion of issues of public concern, and especially issues about which there may be conflicting opinions,” Esman continued. “Sending Dawn home for wearing a shirt with the word ‘gay’ on it not only trampled her right to freedom of expression, but also sent a destructive message to all students that there is something wrong with being gay or even saying the word ‘gay.’ A school is the best place to encourage young people to share opinions. It is not the place to violate the legal rights of students whose views might differ from those of school authorities.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the t-shirt, made by the FCKH8.COM campaign, carries the FCKH8 moniker in much smaller writing underneath the pro-gay slogan.
Could this in fact be the source of the school’s concern given that even implied inappropriate language may fall under its justifiable ability to censor?
The school has, as yet, not issued comment, but given that the ACLU release and associated letter to the school specifically cites that Dawn Henderson was told to remove the t-shirt because it was “distracting” and not because of inappropriate or implied inappropriate language, one would conclude not.
While some may say this is a trivial incident, it has been enough for Dawn Henderson’s mother, Emily Henderson, to tell KTBS news that she will probably pull her daughter from the school.