Update on legal letter

Ok, here’s an update on my post from yesterday (which apparently is getting spread all over hell and creation – see this comment in Jezebel for why I get paid the big [by activist standards] bucks).

Upon sending the school my letter, the person who sent the letter to the SSA responded to me and his principal.  It was…lacking.  I cannot post it yet, maybe never.  That all depends (more on that in a moment).  It was also full of easily detectable lies.


Yesterday I got a call from the HR manager in the district.  She said they needed until Wednesday to get a review from their lawyers.  That was reasonable, so I granted it.  If their lawyers are smart, they will inform the district of just how screwed they are.  However, this is in a pretty conservative area, so who knows what will happen.  The HR person also said something that made me think they might try to fight this.

HR Person:  It’s important to remember that [TEACHER] has his first amendment rights too.

Me:  *pause out of shock*  Yes, he does.  He also has the right to remain silent, which I suggest you encourage him to use.  He is, of course, free to use his first amendment right to free speech to tell me all the ways he’s breaking the law, but that is not in the favor of [SCHOOL NAME].

She responded by telling me their lawyers had it and they’d get back to me on Wednesday.

So, what happens if they decide to fight (or if they jerk me around)?  In short, I will attempt to make this teacher into the school’s new mascot.  I will do my damndest to make sure every available eye is pointed at this school watching them defend the bad guy.  I will also post names and email addresses and count on you, my lovelies, to ensure they are spread far and wide.

So hang tight everybody, and I will keep you as updated as I can.

Here’s the take home from this: easily, over half the high school groups that try to form experience some form of administrative resistance.  I could post a couple letters just like this one per week until the fall semester, and then post another couple a week during that time.  The secular movement is just now getting to a place where we can even do a shitty job of monitoring these situations.  We only become aware of an infinitesimal fragment of all the discrimination aimed at high school atheists.  We’re growing though, and this is the start of things getting better.

What can you do?  Obviously donate.  That’s the easy one.  But you can also spread the word.  Know a high school atheist?  Tell them it can get better.  Tell them they’re not the only ones out there.  Tell them they can stake out a place in their school for the nonbelievers, and that we can help.  They just have to tell us so we know where they are.

I long for the day when it no longer makes sense for me to be employed.  That’s what I’m working toward.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • sisu

    Writing letters like that is one of my favorite things about being a lawyer. I can’t wait to hear tomorrow’s update. And in the mean time… off to donate to the SSA!

    • memphis matt

      I completely agree, and I absolutely loved the way JT handled that correspondence. Although I am happy to give money to the SSA, I would love to volunteer legal services on their behalf as well. I bet there are plenty of secular lawyers out there who would eagerly volunteer to act as local counsel on the SSA’s behalf. Letters like that would probably carry even more weight if they came from lawyers in the same city or state as the offending school district. Hopefully JT or somebody at the SSA might look into something like this.

      • Rosemary

        We need people like you! Human rights includes being not being forced to behave like a person your environment considers “normal” when you are not harming anyone but offending the people who want to harm you for being different.

  • Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    It’s important to remember that [TEACHER] has his first amendment rights too.

    Hmm. Interesting. I had NO IDEA that the first amendment guaranteed [TEACHER] the right to break the law, then brag about it over e-mail.

    Why didn’t anyone ever tell me? now I know that I can walk into a bank and demand all the money. They can’t arrest me for that! I have first amendment rights!

    • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

      Yes, he has a first amendment right to violate someone else’s first amendment rights – apparently!

    • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

      That’s what gets me about this.

      Does a math teacher have a 1st amendment right to teach the students that 2+2=5?

      Does a history teacher have a 1st amendment right to teach that the U.S. was settled by Martians?

      • Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

        LOL. Well, is this school in Texas? In Texas you can tell students whatever unhinged nonsense you want, as long as you follow it up with PRAISE JEBUS!

        2+2=5 kids, cuz PRAISE JEBUS!
        Jebus created America, cuz PRAISE JEBUS!

        On topic:

        Barely sentient HR people aside, JT’s response was excellent. A very polite “Yes, and what he’s saying is hurting YOU”.

        • redkudu

          Don’t be silly. There are plenty of native Texans (and non-native Texans) who work in education and are fighting this mentality.

          • jacobfromlost

            It’s a point that needs to be repeated often. I admit to thinking of Texas as (politically) a lost cause…yet when looking at recent polls, the spread is only 6 or 7 percent.

            Imagine what the spread might be if we (outside the state) stopped assuming Texas is some kind of impenetrable conservative crazy-land.

        • Blake

          Yup. Some of us in Texas have been fighting this in a form of trench warfare for years. The Texas system is rotten from the top down, but there are a few of us in pockets here and there that do everything in our power to insure minority belief students aren’t totally crushed under the religious insanity that dominates this state.

          • Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

            I was talking about those in power who make the idiotic decisions, not every person in the state.

  • Tehallie

    I’d love to see some of those letters!

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches Ed Brayton

    JT, you might like to know that I interviewed Jessica Ahlquist for my radio show last week and she told me that you were the first person to contact her when her saga began and that she was just thrilled to find out that the SSA existed and that there were others out there to support her.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      That means the world to me, Ed. Thank you.

      She’s like Anakin without the evil. One day she will become more powerful than either of us.

      • Konradius

        Perhaps, but you may ease up on the social pressure in the meantime :)

      • Drakk

        I thought it was expressly stated that she’s an Evil Little Thing ™

  • 1000 Needles

    An online gallery of those letters could be a great way to demonstrate to other school administrators just how doomed they are when they try to fight the formation of a local SSA group.

    It could potentially save you time and money otherwise spent in court or correspondence.

    • Crystal

      That’s a really good idea, in my opinion.

      • Rosemary


    • Celeste

      I love this idea too. Students could simply send their principals a link to it when they start to experience pushback from the administration.

    • N. Nescio

      It’d be nice if there was a good dollar amount to quote for the average settlement/awards of open-and-shut legal situations like these. “What you’re doing is illegal, and it’s probably going to cost you $x00,000 if you’re dumb enough to try and take it to court.”

      I wonder if the ACLU keeps data on this kind of thing?

    • Your Dogma is Showing

      +1 on that idea. Cheap and likely to have an effect. I’m also going to go ahead and brag about donating to the SSA for the first time (the DOS attacks were the extra motivation I needed). Keep up the good work, JT.

  • http://faehnri.ch/ eric

    It’s important to remember that [TEACHER] has his first amendment rights too.

    Your rights aren’t being violated when others are given the same rights you currently enjoy. And you don’t have the right to deny others’ theirs.

    Ah, the religious persecution complex.

    • Steve

      Fundamentalist Christians see civil rights as a zero-sum game. They truly think that if anyone else gets rights, they’ll lose. They seem to fear for their god-given “right” to discriminate against and dominate other people.

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      I suspect the HR Person’s position is more thoughtlessly equivocating between what the teacher is actually doing (breaking the law in his professional capacity as an educator) and “expressing an opinion.” A lot of people do this.

      • Rieux

        Yes, I think that that’s very likely the case.

  • Dennis Nuckols

    great job, you have my support. one of the few causes i can justify donating to. good luck and keep us posted for sure, your tops man.

  • Celeste

    JT, I love you in a totally platonic, never-actually-met-you kind of way. Some day, all too soon, my daughters will be old enough to want to start or join a secular club and it’s nice to know that they can get help if they need it. You are an amazing human being!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard


      When the time comes, you know where to find me. :)

  • http://n/a Tyler Pounders

    WTF? He has his first amendment rights too? What bullshit, as an individual he enjoys first amendment rights, but not when acting in his capacity as a government official.

  • Pngwn

    Please please please do not “post names and email addresses and count on you, my lovelies, to ensure they are spread far and wide.”

    I know what you are thinking. It’s that we will just send a few e-mails to them, maybe harass a little bit; it won’t really hurt them, right?

    Unfortunately, this is not so. They will get death threats (complete with pictures of their houses, which somehow always gets found, and sometimes pictures of their children).

    Yes, it really does happen.

    If you can’t find a moral reason, or find a moral reason irrelevant, than at least consider a rational reason. If this does go to court, and they tell the judge that you released their names to the public, then the judge find himself emotionally biased against you. Sure, he/she legally shouldn’t let that bias them, but you can’t tell me it doesn’t happen.

    A blogger releasing others’ personal information is one of the worst parts of the internet, and I hope you are a better person that that.

    • B. C.

      While I fully support the fight for this, I have to agree with the poster above. Don’t post their contact information. It will only muddy up the water and put a poor shade to the good work you’re doing handling this.

      Don’t try to get the internet hate machine to bully people, even if they’re in the wrong, especially when you have so strong a case against them already. It just gives them ammunition.

    • Brian

      One of the best parts of the internet, you mean. Public ridicule is a very powerful force, and the internet is one of the main vessels to convey it. It’s pretty easy to avoid being the target of the internet laser by not doing stupid shit like the people at this school. They brought it upon themselves.

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      I am fairly certain what JT is actually proposing is drawing attention to at-work/in-organization contact information for public comment, not posting their home telephone numbers or something.

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard


        Consider what happened with Brian Lisco. The weight of public awareness can have a huge impact on situations like these. This would be an attempt to make them cave from public pressure, rather than a lengthy and pricey lawsuit they would lose. It’s actually quite merciful.

        • abb3w

          Cue Terry Pratchett reference:

          "It wasn’t until ten years ago that they replaced trial by ordeal here with trial by lawyer, and that was only because they found that lawyers were nastier."

  • jacobfromlost

    The HR person’s response was pretty lame. I wouldn’t take that as a sign they want to fight. It’s more likely a sign that they either A) don’t understand the law, or B) hope they can be intimidating enough while simultaneously hoping you (or others) don’t know the law. My bets would be on B…in which case they already know they are screwed.

    If I know administrators at all–and I think I do–they will crumble. On the other hand, administrators can be unpredicably stupid, so there is an outside chance they try to fight anyway. (Usually their stupidity falls on the side of cowardice, though.)

  • jaranath

    Might wanna be a little cautious with the bad actors’ contact information and how you present it. As I understand it (but very IANAL), you can get dangerously close to harassment or incitement there. I think. Maybe.

  • Deanna

    Hey, JT, just want to let you know this story has educated me and inspired my high school-aged daughter. Last year, students at her high school tried to start an atheist club, but because no faculty member would sign off on it, the club was forced to disband, and the remnants created a “Philosophy Club”. It wasn’t until I was reading your nicely worded letter to the principal that I realized that her HS can actually create the club and meet at the HS, without administration & faculty support, and just have the HS “assign” someone to the club. Today, my daughter has spent the better part of the day reading everything she could at the SSA website, and then took the first step of creating a group on Facebook. She’ll be contacting SSA for the packet within the week! Thank you so much for all your effort and time. You have really made a difference in our lives.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      That’s awesome! All be looking for it. :)

    • SlantedScience

      Dammit, I wanna hug this person. AND JT. ANd all the SSA folks. THIS – (re)edumacation of kids out of the religious furrow and into the wide open fields of atheism – is how we will win.

      May Cod (peas be upon Him) swim at your side during this fight.

      • Rosemary

        Sounds a little fishy, but peas don’t think I didn’t giggle.

  • John

    There’s not much more that can be said other than keep on kicking ass man!

  • David

    Another impressed reader here. I donated. Thanks & keep up the good work.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      We’ll make the most of it. *hug*

  • Cullen

    High school atheist here!
    I’d like to say thanks for doing this for people my age, it’s great what you guys are doing. While my school doesn’t have a club or group for atheists, it doesn’t really need one, which is crazy because I live in Alabama. No one really makes my, or anyone elses, life hell, so I’m perfectly content with not having a group. I know other schools do need them though, and it deeply saddens me that people my age are hurting each other like the way they, and even more so that teachers can be so cruel.

    • Nathaniel Frein

      Since you realize that other students need these kinds of groups, have you considered that by starting one at your school you would be providing a beacon for less comfortable atheists at your school to come out?

  • Jake

    Like a fucking Boss.
    Thank you for your hard/awesome work.

  • Frankie

    As always, smart, quick, and classy. You’re doing great things, and inspiring others. Keep up the fight, we’re here with you!

  • Grateful former high school discrimination victim

    Just donated to the SSA for the first time on the strength of this. Thank you for sticking up for non-theist kids, I only wish I’d had this support when I was the victim. Keep it up.

  • SlantedScience

    Wonderful! This pair of posts has, alone, shown me why I should contribute to the SSA. You have my cash and, if you need it, my offer of physical assistance to SSA (the email address used is genuine).

  • http://bannedatheists.us Banned Atheist

    Hiya JT — Hope you read this but it’s ok if you don’t because all these other people will know it’s true:

    Just wanted to say you’re kinda my hero right now.

    In fact, here’s a link to your honorary BAN Badge of Honor for defending the rights of students, and protecting our schools from predatory proselytizers.

    Nice write-up in Jezebel BTW.

  • christophburschka

    Yay! People can walk into a school and teach kids that 2+2=5, that the Earth is 6000 years old, that the founding fathers never kept slaves, that the holocaust never happened. Because FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

  • Analytical Theist

    It’s things like this that make me miss my high school. We didn’t have a problem with religious bullying, cuz nobody cared. Once in a while you did, but it never lasted long or came from staff; EVERYBODY stood up for EVERYBODY, no matter who you were or what you believed in. If I ever win the lottery, I will donate as much as I can to the SSA. I may be a Chrustian myself, but y’know, when my “zombie vampire cannibal jew” said “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss a section where he said “Unless they’re not like you. Then I don’t give a rip!” lol. I want to be treated with respect for my beliefs, so I treat others the same way. It’s only fair. :)

    <3 I love the work you do, and am so glad I heard about you guys. Let's pray (haha, see what I did there?) this kind of inequality and injustice can be erradicated!

  • Midnight Rambler

    HR Person: It’s important to remember that [TEACHER] has his first amendment rights too.

    This sounds to me like they’re setting up to say that there was no actual violation of the law, and the part of the letter about blocking students from forming a club was just the teacher making stuff up or misunderstanding what was going on; and the rest, being venomous but taking place outside of the classroom, is irrelevant and protected as the teacher’s personal opinion (a protection that, of course, we’ve found doesn’t apply to atheists themselves). That puts the onus on you to find students willing to provide details of what happened with the club and anything bad the teacher might have said in class.

    • jacobfromlost

      Midnight: This sounds to me like they’re setting up to say that there was no actual violation of the law, and the part of the letter about blocking students from forming a club was just the teacher making stuff up or misunderstanding what was going on;

      Me: That defense won’t work. Even if the club wasn’t consciously “blocked” (as the motivation for the entire letter suggests), not allowing the club because they could find no staff member to sponsor it IS STILL ILLEGAL. If they were going to try to use this defense, they’d have to say that there never were any students who wanted to form such a club, and no such students exist now, and the teacher randomly decided to write this letter for no reason. If they take THAT defense, they are betting on no student(s) stepping forward. I don’t think any sane lawyer could gamble on that defense.

      Midnight: and the rest, being venomous but taking place outside of the classroom, is irrelevant and protected as the teacher’s personal opinion (a protection that, of course, we’ve found doesn’t apply to atheists themselves). That puts the onus on you to find students willing to provide details of what happened with the club and anything bad the teacher might have said in class.

      Me: Perhaps, but I’ve never known an administrator to bet on students doing what they WANT/NEED them to do, especially when there is a legal and simple way to totally undermine the administration. IF there were actual students brave enough to try to publically form an SSA (and it seems clear that there were), then A) the administration already knows this (and probably all the teachers as each was probably asked to sponsor it by the students), and B) one or more of them stepping forward in this legal context is not like stepping out of the shadows of anonymity at their school. Everyone at the school already knows who they are.

  • benjdm

    Wednesday is almost over…what did they say?

    • josh

      Seconded, benjdm

  • brenton

    Any more updates on this?

  • Brenton

    Seriously, though, any more updates?

  • Ray

    ….any update? :D

  • http://boozeandothernonsense.wordpress.com SR

    Have there been any more updates to this story?