On Friday, April 20th — the Day of Silence — Wolcott High School junior Seth Groody wore this image on the front of his shirt:
That’s a rainbow with a slash through it… basically summing up Groody’s attitude toward homosexuality.
The administrators at his school told him to change his shirt. He protested, saying he had a right to wear it. He wasn’t discriminating against individuals, which could be illegal at a high school. This was protesting an idea; it was free speech; it was freedom of expression.
“The First Amendment was written to protect unpopular speech, which is naturally the kind of speech that will always need protection,” said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “The ACLU has fought hard for same-sex marriage and we couldn’t agree with Seth less on that issue, but he is absolutely correct about his right to express his opinion.”
Staub likened this shirt’s message (PDF) to another one which also passed a Constitutional challenge — that message read, “Be Happy, Not Gay.” (And, incidentally, that battle involved the high school I currently work at.)
That message was allowed because it, too, didn’t “demean individuals,” according to the courts. (Meanwhile, a shirt that said “Homosexuality is Shameful” was allowed to be banned because you could argue it was a direct attack on a person’s sexual orientation.)
Is it a fine line? Absolutely. I think you could argue that a rainbow with a slash through it is a personal attack on gay students, but the ACLU lawyers felt it would survive a challenge in the courts, and they (perhaps with a heavy sigh) did the right thing by sticking up for Groody.
You don’t have to like this decision, but if you support the rights of atheists to wear shirts that say things like “Good without god” or “Atheist and proud of it,” then you have to get behind the freedom to wear these shirts, too.
Christian Right groups won’t always admit it, but the ACLU upholds civil liberties in all instances, even if doing so goes against the personal beliefs of most of their members. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be an ACLU member.
Though I do have a question for any lawyers out there: Could an atheist student wear a shirt with the Bad Religion logo on it to school?
I don’t see how that’s any different, in theory, from the kind of shirt Groody wore. But in my mind, I feel like administrators would ban a shirt like this in a heartbeat. Would the student survive a court challenge? Who wants to be the test case…?