The following entry, written by ACLUm Online Communications Coordinator Danielle Riendeau, was also cross-posted at Boston.com's On Liberty blog.
True or false? If you are a public high school student in Massachusetts, you have a right to display that phrase on your t-shirt--or many messages that others might find "political," "offensive," "controversial," or "disruptive."
The answer: true. Even though school administrators at Lynn English High School told a student she could not wear the shirt there, they were wrong. Both Massachusetts law and the First Amendment protect a student's right of free expression unless the student "substantially and materially" disrupts the school. (The Supreme Court has carved out some exceptions under the First Amendment, but they don’t apply to this situation.)
In the incident in question, a student wore said t-shirt to school. She was sitting in the lunchroom (not engaging in any disruptive behavior, unless you count "eating one's lunch" as "disruptive") when she was approached and reprimanded by a school official. She had to cover up the phrase on her shirt for the rest of the day, and was told never to wear it again because it was "political" and "offensive to some people".
In response, the student sent an intelligent, well-reasoned letter to the high school principal and the city's mayor (who is also chair of the School Committee) and she posted it to her Facebook wall.
"The word lesbian is not inappropriate. Saying it is, is calling homosexuality inappropriate. The word lesbian does not mean sex, just as heterosexual or straight does not mean sex. It states that you are interested in a specific gender. This is discrimination."
"Mr. Strangie [the principal], this is not simply about me being told to not wear a shirt again. This is about homosexuality being deemed inappropriate."
Our own Sarah Wunsch has given interviews about the incident, telling Lynn's ItemLive.com that: "Disruptive is not that people might disagree or be offended. The statute clearly states that students have the right, the freedom of expression in Massachusetts and that's more protection than you would get under the First Amendment... I think this kid's rights were violated."
Freedom of speech isn't always nice or pleasant to everyone. But that's when we need it, when speech may be controversial and not for things everyone agrees with. And Massachusetts has special protections for student speech, thanks, in part; to a case we won in the mid-90s in South Hadley. In that instance, a teacher told a student to cover up the "Co-Ed Naked" shirt (hey, they were en vogue at the time) he was wearing to gym class.
The result of that particular case is one of the best student speech laws in the entire country. From the Student Law Press Center: "The law says, 'The right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.'"
Fortunately, the Mayor and some members of the school committee seem to recognize that this student was not disrupting anything and that her rights were violated. They have decided to hold a refresher course for school personnel. We think she deserves an apology and an award for being a brave, articulate young woman who is standing up for what she believes in, and she's doing so in a respectful, mature fashion. In every way, this is freedom of expression at its very best--and we are committed to keeping those rights protected.
You can read the ACLU of Massachusetts letter to Lynn officials here.