After a two-day trial in which the Ponce de Leon High School principal testified that he believed clothing or stickers featuring rainbows would make students automatically picture gay people having sex, a federal judge today ruled that the school violated students’ First Amendment rights of students.
The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a junior at the school who had been forbidden by her principal to wear any sort of clothing, stickers, buttons, or symbols to show her support of equal rights for gay people.
“Standing up to my school was really hard to do, but I’m so happy that I did because the First Amendment is a big deal to everyone,” said Heather Gillman, a junior at Ponce de Leon High School and the plaintiff in the case.
Judge Richard Smoak of the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division, issued an order that forces the school to stop its unconstitutional censorship of students who want to express their support for the fair and equal treatment of gay people. The judge also warned the district not to retaliate against students over the lawsuit.
“I am very pleased with the judge’s ruling to uphold the students’ right to express their views on eliminating discrimination from the educational landscape,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, a staff attorney with the West Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida in Pensacola. “This whole experience has been an important civics lesson about freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights.”
The case came about after Heather Gillman and other students approached the ACLU about an atmosphere in which students say they were routinely intimidated by school officials for things like writing “gay pride” on their arms and notebooks or wearing rainbow-themed clothing. According to students, problems began in September of 2007 when a lesbian student tried to report to school officials that she was being harassed by other students because she is a lesbian.
Instead of addressing the harassment, students say the school responded with intimidation, censorship, and suspensions. That student testified on Monday, breaking down on the stand as she described the school’s indifference to the harassment she experienced.
During the trial, which was held in Panama City May 12 AND 13, Ponce de Leon High School’s principal David Davis admitted under oath that he had banned students from wearing any clothing or symbols supporting equal rights for gay people. Davis also testified that he believed rainbows were “sexually suggestive” and would make students unable to study because they’d be picturing gay sex acts in their mind. The principal went on to admit that while censoring rainbows and gay pride messages, he allowed students to wear other symbols many find controversial, such as the Confederate flag.
“Freedom of speech for every person and every idea is one of the bedrock principles on which America was founded,” said Christine Sun, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “Censorship reflects a deep lack of faith in the American system, and it teaches students exactly the wrong lesson on what America is about. We are thrilled that the court in this case made the importance of students’ First Amendment rights so completely clear.”
HEATHER GILLMAN outside of Ponce de Leon High School won the right to support speech about gay students last week in Federal court.