Federal Judge Richard Smoak has ordered Ponce de Leon High School to pay $325,000 in legal fees to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after ruling that the school violated student Heather Gilman’s Constitutional rights to free speech. Many civil rights laws have provisions that entitle successful plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees. These provisions are designed to ensure that anyone whose constitutional rights have been violated has access to legal representation.
“We would hope that other school boards across northwest Florida respect the rights of students to express themselves under the First Amendment to the Constitution,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, a staff attorney
with the Northwest Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida in Pensacola. “The attorney fees awarded in this classic First Amendment freedom of speech case underline the policy contained in federal law that those who choose to violate constitutional rights should be responsible for the costs necessary to right their wrongs.”
In May, after a two-day trial in which a Florida high-school principal testified that he believed that it was necessary to ban clothing and stickers featuring rainbows because they may lead students to imagine sex acts, Judge Richard Smoak ruled that the school violated the First Amendment rights of students. The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Heather Gillman who had been forbidden to wear any sort of clothing, stickers, buttons, or symbols to show her support of equal rights for gay people.
Judge Smoak of the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division, issued an order that requires the school to stop its unconstitutional censorship of students who express support for the fair and equal treatment of gay people. The judge also warned the district not to retaliate against students over the lawsuit.
Students approached the ACLU about a school atmosphere in which they cited routine intimidation 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. Instead of addressing the harassment, students say the school responded with intimidation, censorship, and suspensions.
During the trial, Ponce de Leon High School Principal David Davis admitted under oath that the School Board 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 would picture gay sex acts in their mind. The principal went on to admit that while he censored rainbows and gay pride messages, he allowed students to wear other symbols many find controversial, such as the Confederate battle flag.
For more information on the ACLU’s LGBT advocacy work, visit www.aclufl.org.