"Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Yesterday, Federal Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that school officials in Okeechobee, Florida, must allow a Gay-Straight Alliance to form at their high school, ending a two-year long legal battle.
The battle for recognition of the GSA began when then-student Yasmin Gonzalez and her girlfriend were prohibited from going to the school prom as a couple. It was one of several incidents specifically targeting LGBT students at Okeechobee High School and led to the students to seek the formation a GSA.
The school denied the club, so the determined students sought the help of the ACLU.
The ACLU argued that the Equal Access Act stipulates that when a school allows any non-curricular club to meet on campus, it must allow all non-curricular clubs to meet on campus. The school district argued that the Equal Access Act did not apply to GSAs because Florida law requires schools to teach abstinence and "the benefits of monogamous marriage."
The judge upheld his earlier ruling that GSAs do not interfere with abstinence-only education and in a precedent setting legal first, holds that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students, stating:
Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. The desire of the GSA to meet as a group to discuss matters pertinent to the challenges presented by their non-heterosexual identity and to build understanding and trust with other heterosexual students sounds in the political speech addressed in Tinker.
"Tinker" refers to Tinker v. Des Moines, a U.S. Supreme Court decision from the 1970's that clearly established students' right to free speech in public schools. The case was also referenced in the recent Gillman v. School Board for Holmes County, Fla., a first amendment case won by the ACLU in May. In the trial, the high school principal testified that he believed clothing or stickers featuring rainbows would make students automatically picture gay people having sex.
This order will allow the LGBT students to meet on campus, just as other non-curricular clubs do, to discuss issues like bullying, tolerance and discrimination. GSAs are an important tool that have been shown to help students feel safer at school, as well as provide a forum for students to discuss their fears, experiences, and challenges.
I am so proud of these students who would not be silenced or denied their rights. To fight against a school board so squarely set against them is brave beyond their years. The demeaning language of the arguments used against them did not deter them in the least.
Brittany Martin, a 17-year-old upcoming senior at OHS who is the GSA's new president, says it best:
I can't tell you how happy I am that the judge agreed we have a right to create a safe space for gay students at my school. All we've ever wanted was to have a club to talk about tolerance and harassment so we can try to make our school a better place for all students.
Congratulations to these amazing students, and to the ACLU, for winning important rights and setting important legal precedents in Florida. It is good to see a new generation of empowered, strong LGBT youth fighting for their rights!