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Federal Appeals Court Rules Chicago-Area Student Had Right to Wear Anti-Gay T-Shirt to School


In a case that has been ongoing since 2006, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a student at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois had the right to wear a shirt that said "Be Happy Not Gay".

The Sun-Times reports:

The court had rejected Indian Prairie School District 204’s argument that school officials could prohibit students from wearing the shirts to prevent some students from having their feelings hurt.

In its opinion, the court said a “school that permits advocacy of the rights of homosexual students cannot be allowed to stifle criticism of homosexuality.”

“The school argued (and still argues) that banning ‘Be Happy, Not Gay’ was just a matter of protecting the ‘rights’ of the students against whom derogatory comments are directed,” the court said. “But people in our society do not have a legal right to prevent criticism of their beliefs or even their way of life.”

Heidi Zamecnik, a student at the time, wore the shirt in response to GLSEN's "Day of Silence" in which students take a vow of silence against bullying and in support of other LGBT students.

Regarding the condition of the shirt above:

The school’s dean demanded she remove it or be sent home for the day. After speaking with Zamecnik’s mother by phone, all agreed to change the shirt to read, “Be Happy, Be Straight.” However, the dean instead had a female counselor cross the words “Not Gay” off Zamecnik’s shirt so it simply read “Be Happy.”

The appeals court ruling overturns two previous rulings by lower courts.

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  1. How would this court rule about tee-shirts that said "Spics are dirty," or "whitey is a cracker," or other racial epithets? Is it just okay to disparage gays? This is one stupid ruling.

    Posted by: candideinnc | Mar 2, 2011 8:34:43 AM

  2. I never thought I'd say this..... but whatever happened to good manners?

    Obviously this sort of crap has no place in school.

    Posted by: hohum | Mar 2, 2011 8:42:57 AM

  3. Does this mean I should dust off that "White Power" t-shirt and let some 9th grader in Illinois wear it to school?
    ** Note: I actually don't own a White Power T-shirt......

    Posted by: Brian | Mar 2, 2011 8:46:44 AM

  4. sorry, I disagree, If people want to wear shirts in school that slander us, they have every right to do so. I don't understand the need to fight against this kind of thing. I mean it makes us look better. If we can scream gay pride, let them scream whatever they like.

    Posted by: InTristin | Mar 2, 2011 8:48:12 AM

  5. Amen, Candide. This ruling is completely offensive. How about "Be Gentile, not Jewish" or "If you ain't white, you ain't right!" shirts, anyone?

    Are they serious with this: “school that permits advocacy of the rights of homosexual students cannot be allowed to stifle criticism of homosexuality"?

    As if homosexuality were a Dali painting instead of an inborn human characteristic. Antediluvian, amateurish, and asinine.

    Posted by: redball | Mar 2, 2011 8:52:34 AM

  6. I'll have a medium-size 100% cotton "Kill A Christian, Feed A Lion: Win-Win!" shirt, please.

    Posted by: Anastasia Beaverhausen | Mar 2, 2011 8:57:01 AM

  7. @INTRISTIN, I would agree with you 100% if gays were being treated just like everyone else, just like other minorities but we're not. Anti-gay speech is protected "free-speech" in schools but racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian speech is banned. Someone needs to explain to me what the difference is. Either allow ALL bigots to speak freely or NONE. We shouldn't be picking and choosing one form of bigotry to call free speech and all others to call verboten.

    Posted by: TampaZeke | Mar 2, 2011 8:58:19 AM

  8. Can you imagine the uproar if the shirt said "Be Happy, Not Handicapped", or "Short People Don't Measure Up" or "Bible=Fable" or "Jesus committed suicide by Roman Soldier"

    Posted by: Rucka | Mar 2, 2011 8:59:53 AM

  9. This is a shitty ruling and the wording of it is awful: it's not "criticism of [our] beliefs or even [our] way of life" that is at stake here, it's criticism of who we ARE. Pretty shocking to be reading this kind of language, essentially casting homosexuality as a lifestyle, coming out of a court in Illinois.

    Also, schools are not society writ large. I thought they had the right to make decisions that are in the best interests of the students at large, including the suppression of speech?

    Posted by: E. | Mar 2, 2011 9:03:18 AM

  10. What a despicable person this girl is. Gay teens commit suicide because they have to go to school with kids like her.

    Posted by: Mathew | Mar 2, 2011 9:13:17 AM

  11. According to the court's ruling, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Therefore, start wearing your supportive GLBT (not anti-straight) clothing at school.

    As for the question about whatever happened to good manners, I mean, thank the Teahadists and their GOPer breathern for making a mockery of manners in this country. "Civility" today is but a word in the dictionary.

    Posted by: Rob | Mar 2, 2011 9:15:38 AM

  12. Reality Check:

    Yes, it's perfectly legal to wear a shirt that disparages others or praises a particular race, ethnicity, orientation, etc., That's protected under the constitution. Of course, an individual employer [private or public], institution, can restrict many activities on their premises or among their employees or students.

    What's with the 'White Power' angle? Where else was race mentioned? It wasn't. And anyways, there are MANY black, Asian, Hispanic, etc., homophobes, racists, etc.,

    Posted by: ratbastard | Mar 2, 2011 9:17:17 AM

  13. FREE SPEECH ladies and gentlemen: It's a TWO-WAY street

    Posted by: ratbastard | Mar 2, 2011 9:19:40 AM

  14. Ratbastard and Intristin--The courts have ruled in the past that schools are not subject to the same rules of freedom of speech as the rest of society, and that schools can impose rules on what can be worn and what can be done and what can be said in order to ensure an orderly environment for learning. Students are required to be there by law, and are not allowed to be disruptive. If this isn't disruptive, I don't know what is. It is an attack on the character of a minority, designed to denigrate their very being.

    The Court that ruled on this was undoubtedly a bunch of Rethug bigots appointed by Bush.

    Posted by: candideinnc | Mar 2, 2011 9:30:10 AM

  15. @Anastasia, I'm ordering a T-shirt that says that right now.

    Posted by: Kas | Mar 2, 2011 9:30:20 AM

  16. Quelle surprise! Four Reagan appointees, two George H.W., one Dumbya, two Cliton and one Obama. Wonder how they voted on this issue?

    Posted by: candideinnc | Mar 2, 2011 9:34:56 AM

  17. Well, then people should start wearing "Jesus Sucks" T-shirts, etc. and see how far that goes. Basically, everyone has a right to free speech, but that doesn't extend to creating a "hostile environment". This is just common sense, and obviously these judges missed the point.

    Posted by: Mike | Mar 2, 2011 9:54:10 AM

  18. The anti-gay t-shirt avoids vulgar language and words which are considered slurs, so it isn't in the same category as "Spics are dirty". But how about these t-shirt suggestions:

    Jews and Muslims repent!

    Why doesn't Jesus eat M&M'S? Because they fall through the holes in his hands.

    Both of the examples above also avoid vulgar language and slurs. Schools can't use a double standard that disadvantages only LGBT people. I'm sure you could successfully argue that in court.

    Posted by: Phil | Mar 2, 2011 10:06:18 AM

  19. This makes no sense for obvious reasons. Schools always just put things like this into the category of things that distract from learning. They have every right to tell the student what she could or could not wear. This ruling is absurd.

    Posted by: Matthew | Mar 2, 2011 10:08:28 AM

  20. It's so funny that people only believe in free speech when they agree with the speaker. Typical.

    This ruling is perfectly in line with Supreme Court precedent. Public schools can only censor speech when it interferes with their primary duty of teaching students (i.e. the speech is disruptive). They cannot censor speech just because they don't agree with it. That's a no-no.

    Students would also be allowed to wear shirts that disparaged races; however, there's a difference between "spics are dirty" and "be happy. not gay.". The former contains a "fighting word" which is not protected speech. The latter contains no fighting words. If the shirt said, "be happy, not a fag." The ruling would be different.

    Posted by: bravokilo | Mar 2, 2011 10:08:47 AM

  21. The reason why a racist tshirt would not be permitted would be because the school is asserting its right to "maintain order," most likely. The solution here is to make sure that when people wear these shirts, gay kids MAKE it disrupt order. If that happens, the school wins this lawsuit. Problem may be that we are TOO civilized

    The only other justification for suppressing the tshirt is that it would disrupt the educational mission of the school. And in that justification, I see no intellectually honest way to distinguish between an anti-gay, and racist/anti-religion shirt.

    Posted by: Jack | Mar 2, 2011 10:14:52 AM

  22. @Bravokilo: We may have been writing our posts at exactly the same time, but I gave you two examples of t-shirt messages that don't contain vulgar language or slurs and should be legally equivalent to the anti-gay t-shirt.

    Posted by: Phil | Mar 2, 2011 10:16:06 AM

  23. "It's so funny that people only believe in free speech when they agree with the speaker. Typical."

    I don't think that's what most here are arguing. One can argue that there should be unrestricted speech in schools, but speech in schools is quite clearly restricted. The question in this case is whether the Court ruling would have been the same if another group had been targeted with similar "non-fighting" words. (For example Be Tolerant, Not Christian; Be Smart, Not Black; Be Able, Not Handicapped . . . . etc.) Many of us have our doubts that the Court would have made the same decision if the expression were anti-other-groups rather than anti-gay.

    Posted by: Ernie | Mar 2, 2011 10:33:54 AM

  24. In all likelihood, the Supreme Court would say that this shirt could be restricted. The high court gives a great deal of deference to school administrators to decide these issues b/c of the sensitive nature of the school yard. Their opinion would start of by acknowledging that students do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolyard gate, but then would say that in this particular case the school administrators acted to maintain a safe school environment. If these kids were protesting a war with t-shirts or some other such political speech, the Court might go the other way. But I have a feeling the Court would not find this to be such speech. First Amendment jurisprudence in secondary schools is not nearly as forgiving as it is outside of schools.

    Posted by: Sam | Mar 2, 2011 10:51:57 AM

  25. Sigh. Logic lesson #1: Just because something is a first amendment right doesn't mean it's allowed in SCHOOLS. Got that, commenters? I can stand outside and say, "My teacher is an idiot," but I can't do that in a classroom."

    Similarly, wearing t-shirts that criticize other students -- yes, religion is a good parallel to sexual orientation here -- are disruptive and shouldn't be allowed. Just because the school allows kids to wear t-shirts saying "I'm a happy Christian!" doesn't mean they should allow shirts that say, "Catholics suck eggs in hell."

    Posted by: RomanHans | Mar 2, 2011 11:06:18 AM

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