Teacher Fights Gag Order
Can a school district prohibit a teacher from discussing her homosexual orientation or lifestyle with students, staff members, and parents? That is the central question raised by a lawsuit filed against the Nebo district in Spanish Fork, Utah, by 17-year teaching veteran Wendy Weaver.
Weaver was removed as volleyball coach at Spanish Fork High School last July and warned not to discuss her homosexuality if she wanted to keep her position as a tenured psychology and physical education teacher. In a variation on the federal government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for homosexuals serving in the U.S. military, Nebo district administrators told Weaver that if students, fellow staff members, or parents asked her about her sexual orientation, she was to tell them that the subject was private and inappropriate to discuss with them.
According to her federal lawsuit filed in October in Salt Lake City, Weaver moved in with her lesbian partner soon after she and her former husband, also an employee of the Nebo school district, were divorced last April. The suit contends that district officials learned of her homosexual orientation from Weaver's ex-husband and that she never initiated any conversation about her private life with any students.
In June, a member of the girls' volleyball team at Spanish Fork asked Weaver whether she was a lesbian. Weaver responded truthfully.
School officials informed Weaver in July that she was being removed as coach of the volleyball team, which she had led to four state championships. Principal Robert Wadley, a defendant in the suit, told her he was taking away the coaching job because it was in the school's best interest and because his perception of her had changed, the court papers say.
At a later meeting, she was given the letter threatening her with firing if she discussed her homosexuality.
The suit, which Weaver filed with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, maintains that school officials have refused to clarify whether the restrictions cover Weaver only at school or also outside school. It contends that the restriction on discussing her homosexuality violates her constitutional rights of free speech, privacy, and equal protection of the law.
David Watkiss, one of Weaver's lawyers, says the teacher has never intended to discuss her private life in the classroom or with students. But the restrictions apparently bar her from discussing her homosexuality with potentially thousands of fellow teachers and parents in the community. "Ms. Weaver's own domestic partner is a parent," Watkiss says. "Her ex-
husband is a parent and staff member. You can see how absurdly broad this gag order potentially is.
"I am not aware of anything in Utah law that makes being a homosexual disqualifying for teaching in the public schools," he adds. "There are a number of openly homosexual teachers
in the Granite and Salt Lake districts."
Almon Mosher, director of human resources for the 19,500-student Nebo district, says officials there could not discuss the details of the lawsuit. "We expect our teachers to teach the curriculum of the school district and the state of Utah," Mosher says. "We don't expect them to talk about their private issues, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual."
According to Watkiss, one key court decision that supports Weaver's case is a 1984 ruling by a federal appeals court striking down part of an Oklahoma law that authorized school districts to dismiss employees who advocate or encourage homosexuality. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which covers Utah, held that the First Amendment protects teachers' advocacy of gay rights even if they advocate conduct that would be illegal under the state's sodomy law.
The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the ruling in 1985. But the court deadlocked 4-4; then-Justice Lewis Powell Jr. did not participate. The tie affirmed the 10th Circuit ruling without making it a nationwide precedent.