A Pro-Gay Shirt Controversy in Alabama Has a Happy Ending

Sara Couvillon, a sophomore at Hoover High School in Alabama, wore a shirt earlier this month that said, “gay? fine by me.” School officials told her to change out of “concern for her safety”… despite the fact that no one had made any threats.

This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center sent the school a letter (PDF) letting them know this case would not be taken lightly:

Evidently, officials at your school told Sara that she could not wear the shirt because they were “concerned for her safety.” Yet, Sara did not experience any threats of violence, nor did the officials tell Sara that there were threats of violence against gay students from which disruption could have, or did, result. In fact, Sara had routinely worn the t-shirt during the previous school year without incident. Therefore, the officials’ stated reason for the censorship was unfounded and unsubstantiated.

Moreover, even if there are students who will act disruptively in reaction to Sara’s t-shirt, the school has a duty to punish the disruptive students, not to prohibit Sara’s speech…

By censoring Sara out of concern that other students would behave disruptively, your school has allowed those disruptive students to exercise a “heckler’s veto” over Sara’s free speech rights. The First Amendment does not permit such an outcome.

The SPLC gave the school two weeks to respond. The principal wrote back in a couple hours:

“At Hoover High School, we have a tradition and practice of respecting the rights of students to exercise all of their constitutional entitlements.

We are fortunate to have a diversified student body and we work very diligently to encourage a culture of tolerance and understanding.

In the tradition of the United States Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, students at Hoover High School exercise their First Amendment rights without restriction unless such expression disrupts the learning environment or disabuses the rights of others.

Our dress code at Hoover High School is designed to facilitate the learning environment that is so important to our school. The t-shirt at issue has not caused a substantial disruption and the student will be allowed to wear it.

Our focus has been and will be on the learning environment at Hoover High School.”

-Don Hulin, Principal

It’s the right move from the principal, though I’d still like to know why someone asked Sara to change her shirt in the first place — and if any disciplinary action will be taken against the staffer(s).

Incidentally, students (at least in my area) have been allowed to wear shirts reading “Be Happy, Not Gay” and the courts have sided with them.

(Thanks to Cheryl for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://profiles.google.com/chris.m.busby Christopher Busby

    I’m glad to see this come out of Hoover High School.  As someone who used to live in the Hoover area, Hoover High wasn’t known for being tolerant.  It makes me happy to see that changing.

    • Guest

      I graduated from Hoover High last year, and I can say I experienced very little anti-gay bullying.

  • Anonymous

    I love when this sort of thing results in the opposite sort of publicity that was probably intended by the initial instigators. My reaction upon reading this story was: awesome shirt! Where can I get one? In case anyone else had a similar response, here is a link: http://www.atticuscircle.org/gay-fine-by-me

    • Rach

      Thanks! That was the reason I clicked on the comments! I wanted the shirt!

  • SpursFan

    It’s refreshing to a see a logical, reasoned, legal response from a school administrator.  

  • madlinguist

    This is slightly off-topic, but as a gay person, I actually find the t-shirt somewhat condescending. It implies that “gay” is this thing that people can either be “fine” with or “not fine” with, sort of like when people say they “agree” or “disagree” with homosexuality. Whether or not someone is gay is not subject to anyone’s opinion any more than their race, ethnicity, height or hair color is. Imagine if she wore a t-shirt that read “Black? Fine by me.” I realize she is showing her support for gay people, but I believe the t-shirt is actually sending the wrong (underlying) message.

  • madlinguist

    This is slightly off-topic, but as a gay person, I actually find the t-shirt somewhat condescending. It implies that “gay” is this thing that people can either be “fine” with or “not fine” with, sort of like when people say they “agree” or “disagree” with homosexuality. Whether or not someone is gay is not subject to anyone’s opinion any more than their race, ethnicity, height or hair color is. Imagine if she wore a t-shirt that read “Black? Fine by me.” I realize she is showing her support for gay people, but I believe the t-shirt is actually sending the wrong (underlying) message.

    • Anonymous

      I can appreciate your point of view, but I think that it’s a position that one is more at liberty to take in a secure environment. This girl is in High School in Alabama, which I’m guessing isn’t exactly the San Francisco School of the Arts as high schools go. In such an environment, young closeted teens may have no idea if they can trust anyone, and knowing that they aren’t all alone and they have a real life ally nearby could do a world of good.

      • madlinguist

        I realize that, and I think her heart is definitely in the right place (and the result may in fact be quite positive). It just irks me when people (particularly politicians) are constantly asked their “views” on homosexuality. I think the question is as much of a problem as the answer. 

        • Anonymous

          I agree that it’s a a statement, though affirming, that can only exist within a context of discrimination. If homosexuality was really accepted the shirt would be about as relevant as “left handed? Fine by me!”. Something similar happens with me on polls on gay marriage. Though I’m happy they’re going in the right direction, a part of me thinks “Why is the opinion of people on this subject even relevant to the question? Civil rights are something you’re supposed to have regardless of public opinion.”

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KE6NVRNX77BG3DJYP6GQ7XT75U b

          George Washington touched on precisely that point in his letter to Touro Synagogue, in 1790.
          ” It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.” In other words, the very act of saying “We tolerate them” conceals an implicit “But they are still Them, and not Us, and our tolerance is an indulgence”.  Toleration at its ideal is no longer spoken of.

    • Rich Wilson

      (not gay, but I’m going to weigh in anyway) I think the reason “Black?  Fine by me” stands out in contrast is that it’s now not socially acceptable to be not ok with someone being black.  Lots of people aren’t ‘ok’ with it, but if they come out and say that publicly, they’ll be slammed a lot harder than coming out anti-gay.  Could Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachman get away with their shit if it were directed at any other group?  (other than atheists, of course).

      http://www.atheistmedia.com/2011/08/college-student-schools-rick-santorum.html

      But the original reason I wanted to comment was on the use of ‘Pro-gay’.  It’s not a ‘pro-gay’ shirt.  I mean, in light of the amount of anti-gay out there, it is pro-gay because it’s not anti-gay.  But the message is really gay-neutral.  Which is ok.  As I think madlinguist is saying, we don’t have to be ‘pro-gay’ (and certainly not anti-gay).  Gay just is.

      • madlinguist

        That reminds me of a saying Christians attribute to Jesus: “If you’re not for me, you’re against me” — except backwards (ha!). But yeah, I think you get exactly what I’m saying. And maybe gay people actually stand a chance here. Now atheists, on the other hand… oh well, maybe next century.

  • Annaig

    @madlinguist – I get your point. Last fall I attended a play about Matthew Shepard and they were selling these t-shirts in the lobby so I think it is a national campaign of some kind, I think the purpose is for ally’s to show support and to normalize that support.

    • madlinguist

      Yeah, I think I’m reading into it too deeply. It’s good enough for the masses.

  • Annaig

    @madlinguist – I get your point. Last fall I attended a play about Matthew Shepard and they were selling these t-shirts in the lobby so I think it is a national campaign of some kind, I think the purpose is for ally’s to show support and to normalize that support.

  • Comfishoes

    I found a “I’d sell my soul for Rock and Roll” tee at the thrift store for my 7 year Daughter. I am curious if this will raise a stink in school. Guess we’ll find out.

  • Anonymous

    …and meanwhile, skepchicks are pressuring companies to not sell t-shirts they find objectionable…ironic?  me thinks so.

    • Rieux

      ironic?

      No.

      • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

        @f905196f5f54988e3448d7fd99359a72:disqus I actually laughed out loud at that.Now everyone at work is looking at me funny.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephan-Goodwin/676660806 Stephan Goodwin

      One example was a school supressing someone’s right to wear a shirt.  Another was saying “If you sell this, we will think less of you.”  How are these remotely related?  Oh, they aren’t.  Nevermind.

      • Marlon

        Do you really think the content of the complaints was, “if you sell this, we will think less of you”?

        It all boils down to: someone thinks something is objectionable and they use whatever power is at hand to remove it. I’m sorry I didn’t make that more clear with my first post.

        • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Emily Joyce

          Yeah, but only one is suppressing someone’s right to free speech.  There’s a big difference between someone being compelled  by a person in a position of authority as opposed to being boycotted or offered a suggestion by a potential consumer who can be ignored if the company so chooses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Sweet/1280927267 James Sweet

    Probably just some well-meaning dumb-ass who didn’t know the policy.  I’m not even sure if disciplinary action would be warranted necessarily, all that’s required here might just be a sit-down with the administrator in question to let them know the score, and then maybe a memo to staff reminding them that students have a pretty broad leeway to express themselves.

  • godless lib

    Kudos to Don Hulin for coming to a reasonable decision.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    New t-shirt:  Be happy. Not Christian. :)

  • usclat

    I agree that the Principal (Don Hulin) should be commended for his decision and for his eloquent response to the incident. Not many Alabamians would have done the same I’m afraid. Not even Joe Scarborough (graduate of UofA). But it is heartening to see the world growing up before my eyes even if it is in super slow motion. 

  • Elliott776

    I understand the logic behind telling this girl not to wear the shirt for fear of her safety. It’s a perfectly logical concern. And no where did this article say that the girl was barred from wearing it, she was asked not to wear it.
    Now lets put this in  a different perspective. I live in an area where dogs do not have to be leashed or kept penned in a fenced yard. Consequently I’ve been surrounded by dogs while running on public streets. Now I have a right to run on these streets but I have been told not to for fear of my safety. And this is not a civil rights violation. It’s sensible.

    • GStanford

      Are you saying a teenager having an aggressive physical response to a peer’s t-shirt is like a loose dog attacking a runner?

    • Anonymous

      There is nothing logical about it. There were no actual incidents of bullying, physical or verbal harassment. It was purely based on fear and hypotheticals.

    • Rich Wilson

      I sure hope you have the right to carry mace.  Or a bunch of hamburger and a can of spraypaint.

      If the animal control laws in your area suck, then get creative.  And although the reality is that sometimes the system doesn’t give us the protection it should, don’t go blaming other victims.

    • Rich Wilson

      I sure hope you have the right to carry mace.  Or a bunch of hamburger and a can of spraypaint.

      If the animal control laws in your area suck, then get creative.  And although the reality is that sometimes the system doesn’t give us the protection it should, don’t go blaming other victims.

    • Rich Wilson

      I sure hope you have the right to carry mace.  Or a bunch of hamburger and a can of spraypaint.

      If the animal control laws in your area suck, then get creative.  And although the reality is that sometimes the system doesn’t give us the protection it should, don’t go blaming other victims.

  • http://diaryofamessylady.wordpress.com/ Lauren

    Huzzah for that principal! I love it when people see the light and just do the decent thing.

  • Johannsone

    does anyone ever wonder what caused the word gay to mean homosexual?

    • Anonymous

      Owing to its original meaning of “carefree”, the word had long had a meaning of sexual immorality in some contexts, for example referring to prostitution. Its association with homosexuality is merely an outgrowth of that, though it didn’t become popular in that sense until the mid 20th century

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

    It sounded more like a suggestion in the first place, rather than an order. And the principal’s reply shows that they’re not being hard-asses about the issue at all. But it’s nice to see the t-shirt, anyhow, and for other schools to learn by example.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    “School officials told her to change out of “concern for her safety”… despite the fact that no one had made any threats.”

    That exact ploy  has been used successfully to suppress conservative speakers on college campuses.   So this is kinda old news.

  • Dan W

    I have a shirt like the one she wore. Only difference is the color; mine’s green instead of black. I sometimes wear it when I know I’ll be outside the house for a while. So far I haven’t gotten any threats of violence for wearing it.

  • teacoffee

    There’s always some controversy on the topic of gays in every corner. Though, yes, glad enough this was dealt with reasonably enough.

  • http://twitter.com/arctangentleman ArcTanGentleman

    Moreover, even if there are students who will act disruptively in reaction to Sara’s t-shirt, the school has a duty to punish the disruptive students, not to prohibit Sara’s speech…
    I have got to look up this legal case.


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