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Student Speech and T-Shirts

Today's post is from David L. Hudson, Jr., author of Let the Students Speak!: A History of the Fight For Free Expression in American Schools, which was released this week by Beacon Press. Hudson is a First Amendment Scholar with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He teaches at Vanderbilt University Law School and Nashville School of Law and blogs at the First Amendment Center, where this post originally appeared.

Book cover for Let the Students Speak! by David L. Hudson Jr.A public school student should have the right to wear a T-shirt in support of a gay-straight alliance. But a controversy at a high school in Madisonville, Tenn., highlights the reality that censorship is alive and well when it comes to sexual orientation.

Chris Sigler, a student at Sequoyah High School, wore a T-shirt with the messages “SQHS” and “Gay Straight Alliance: We’ve Got Your Back.” Sigler alleges that his principal, Maurice Moser, verbally and physically assaulted him on Sept. 30 for wearing the T-shirt.

If true, such an attack is unacceptable and likely violates the student’s First Amendment free-speech rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sent a stern letter Oct. 4 to the director of Monroe County (Tenn.) Schools regarding the incident. The letter states that the T-shirt did not constitute a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities.

“It is totally unacceptable that a young man who was peacefully exercising his First Amendment rights would have his speech shut down by the public school principal,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, in a news release.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous student-speech decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), school officials cannot censor student expression unless they can reasonably forecast that the speech would cause a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities, or invade the rights of others.

The principal may have acted out of a fear that some students would pick on or bully students who wore shirts supporting the attempts to form a gay-straight club at the school. But as the ACLU indicates in its letter, “when students engage in harassment or bullying, whether their purported reason is a T-shirt or something else, the school administration is obligated to stop the harassment and maintain order and safety.”

Even if the T-shirt supporting the formation of a gay-straight alliance provoked bullying, the school should stand up for Sigler. Otherwise, the school would allow bullies to impose a “heckler’s veto” upon protected speech.

The bottom line is that a principal should be protecting a student’s constitutional rights to wear a T-shirt either for or against a gay-straight alliance. He certainly shouldn’t be in the business of censoring and harassing a student for wearing one.