An openly gay student is fighting to campaign in his high school election with posters that read: "Gay Guys Know Everything!" and "Queer Guy for Hunt High." Seventeen-year-old Jarred Gamwell has enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to reverse a principal's decision last week that stripped the posters from the halls of James B. Hunt Jr. High School in Wilson.
"The school administration's removal of these two campaign posters is a clear violation of Jarred's constitutional right to free expression," Leslie Cooper, an ACLU attorney, wrote in a letter to the school Monday. "The Supreme Court has made it clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."
School officials say they have the right to control and censor candidates for student body president, especially when their speech could interfere with learning. "The language in the two campaign posters in question was determined to be disruptive to the educational process and to have no relevance to the student's qualifications for office," said Robert E. Kendall Jr., school district spokesman in Wilson County, 40 miles east of Raleigh. In a letter to the ACLU, a lawyer for the district, David Orcutt, also said the school would also seek to prevent Gamwell from making similar statements in a campaign speech set to be broadcast Tuesday over the school intercom. Students vote Wednesday.
ACLU Sues North Carolina High School for Silencing Gay Student (aclu.org Press Release, April 27, 2004): The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a state superior court to end school officials’ attempts to censor a gay student’s campaign posters promoting his run for student body president. The posters – one with the slogan, “Queer Eye for Hunt High” and another reading, “Gay Guys Know Everything” – were removed by administrators at James Baxter Hunt Jr. High School in Wilson, North Carolina.
“At first, I just wanted to know why these two posters were taken down when dozens of others were still up in our hallways, but now I feel it’s important to stand up for my principles and my word,” said Jarred Gamwell, a 17-year-old junior who is an honor student. “I’m surprised that the school is taking this so far, but now I feel it’s important to stand up for my rights to let other students know it’s wrong for a school to stop them from being open and proud about who they are.”
The ACLU sought a temporary restraining order before the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division, in Wilson, asking the court to force the school to put Gamwell’s posters back up before the student government election tomorrow. The move comes in the wake of the school’s defiant response to the ACLU’s demands yesterday afternoon. In a letter to the ACLU, the school’s attorney claimed that any speech related to student government is school-sponsored speech and therefore the school has the right to censor it. The school went on to say Gamwell’s posters were “disruptive” and had nothing to do with his qualifications to be president. This morning, in a further effort to silence Gamwell, school officials announced to students that campaign speeches planned for today have been cancelled.
So here's the thing: in fact, I don't think that the student's relative gaiety has anything to do with his qualifications for student government. How could it? That said ... how on earth could this possibly have been disruptive to the educational process in any way, shape or form? If the guy's running around slapping up posters, then clearly, everyone knows about him; it's not news and it's not going to create any sort of seven-days wonder.
It will be interesting to see if the court buys the school's argument that any speech related to student government is necessarily school-sponsored speech. For one thing, extending that argument out into any other government-related realm would be very troublesome indeed. For another, technically speaking, it can only be school-sponsored speech if the person is already a member of student government (assuming that the "school-sponsored speech" argument flies, which I kind of think it wouldn't, if we weren't talking about North Carolina and schools). Yet another problem: this is, quite clearly, state-sponsored censorship; even allowing that the school may more closely control students' speech in other forums that it provides, surely this goes well beyond the pale. If the court needed any more evidence that all the school wanted to do was to prevent Gamwell from talking about being gay, whatever relevance that might have to anything, surely the fact that they cancelled the campaign speech forum -- at which they could not reasonably have prevented him from speaking and at which they would have had precious little control over said speech -- will be enough.
That said ... this is one of the more conservative states in the country. Who knows what the court will do? Frankly, although the principal's actions are clearly based on his personal prejudices and not on any reasonable grounds, I think the court will allow it, but we'll see.Posted by iain at April 27, 2004 01:42 PM