Law & Courts

U.S. Court Backs School’s Decision to Bar Student’s Anti-Gay T-Shirt

By Andrew Trotter — April 28, 2006 4 min read
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A federal appeals court’s ruling that a public school may prohibit students’ wearing of T-shirts bearing slogans that “denigrate” gay and lesbian students was hailed last week by gay-rights advocates, but drew fire from some legal observers, who said it endorsed viewpoint discrimination.

The 2-1 decision late last month by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit came in a much-debated case involving a student at a California high school who wore a T-shirt calling homosexuality “shameful.”

“Those who administer our public educational institutions need not tolerate verbal assaults that may destroy the self-esteem of our most vulnerable teenagers and interfere with their educational development,” U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority.

In a sharp dissent, Judge Alex Kozinski said that “of the possible measures a school might take to deal with substantial disruption of the school environment, those involving viewpoint discrimination would seem to me to be the least justifiable.”

Some legal observers predict that a larger panel of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit court will agree to rehear the case and that it is likely to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There does seem to be disagreement in the way the other circuits view the issue,” said Eugene Volokh, a law professor and constitutional scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. He said the decision is “novel [in that] there’s an inherent right that minority group members do not have to hear speech that is considered harmful to them.”

‘Silent’ Protest

The case pits a public school’s concern about the protection of students in a minority group that has been subjected to harassment against the First Amendment free-speech rights of other students.

In 2004, Poway (Calif.) High School student Chase Harper was barred from wearing this T-shirt with an anti-gay message.

In 2004, the parents of Tyler Chase Harper, a student at Poway High School, sued the 33,000-student Poway, Calif., school district after administrators there barred him from wearing a shirt bearing the hand-lettered messages “Be ashamed, our school embraced what God has condemned” and “Homosexuality is shameful,” along with a Bible-verse citation. (“T-Shirts on Gay Issues Spur Lawsuits,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Mr. Harper, now a senior at the school, wore his shirt on April 22, 2004, to protest his schoolmates’ participation the previous day in the annual Day of Silence, a national event sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network in which students mark their support for gay rights by not speaking for a day.

The school had experienced altercations on the previous year’s Day of Silence, and the principal told Mr. Harper that his shirt was “inflammatory” and might cause further conflict. The student was barred from wearing the shirt in class, and upon refusing to remove the shirt, he was required to remain in the school office the rest of the day. The principal declined to suspend him.

The appeals court’s April 20 ruling upheld the denial by the U.S. District Court in San Diego of the Harper family’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the Poway district from restricting students from wearing similar T-shirts while legal proceedings continued.

Judge Reinhardt wrote that under the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a school may regulate student speech for one of two reasons. One is if it would result in “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” The other—the reason cited by the 9th Circuit panel—is if the speech would “impinge upon the rights of other students.”

“Speech that attacks high school students who are members of minority groups that have historically been oppressed, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, and made to feel inferior,” Judge Reinhardt wrote, “serves to injure and intimidate them, as well as to damage their sense of security and interfere with their opportunity to learn.”

“The demeaning of young gay and lesbian students in a school environment is detrimental not only to their psychological health and well-being, but also to their educational development,” the judge wrote, citing research documenting links between harassment at school and various ill consequences for gay students.

Dissenting View

But Judge Kozinski, in his dissenting opinion, said “it is quite clear that Harper’s lone message was not sufficiently severe and pervasive” to constitute harassment that should trump the First Amendment protection of speech.

The evidence in the case, Judge Kozinski argued, did not establish that the messages on Mr. Harper’s T-shirt “are so offensive and demeaning that they interfere with the ability of homosexual students to partake of the educational environment.”

The ruling drew strong reactions from various quarters.

“To censor a student’s T-shirt that addresses homosexuality or any other controversial subject undercuts the First Amendment,” said Mathew D. Staver, the president of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based legal organization that often represents students on issues of religious expression in the public schools.

Mr. Staver said that although students may not libel or defame their classmates, “schools, especially high schools, need to teach the importance of vigorous speech.”

But a representative of GLSEN, based in New York City, applauded the ruling for its recognition of the treatment gay students often face in school.

“Anti-gay and lesbian harassment is one of the three leading types of bullying and harassment that takes place in schools,” said Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of GLSEN.

The 9th Circuit court, she said, had essentially decided that Mr. Harper’s T-shirt was “a kind of unacceptable speech that crosses the line between proactive statements of belief and intimidating attacks by other students.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Court Backs School’s Decision To Bar Student’s Anti-Gay T-Shirt

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