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)