ACLU Secures Promise from Missouri High School to Stop Censoring Student's Gay-Supportive T-Shirts

June 23, 2005 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it has secured assurances from a Missouri high school that it will no longer censor a student from wearing t-shirts expressing her support for gay rights. In return, the ACLU has agreed to end a censorship lawsuit that began in April.

“All I ever wanted was to get my school to stop silencing me and allow all students to express their opinions, so I’m really happy that’s finally going to happen,” said LaStaysha Myers, a heterosexual 15-year-old student who was punished twice for wearing t-shirts expressing her support for gay rights.

After months of negotiation, Webb City High School recently informed Myers that it would no longer illegally censor her for wearing t-shirts bearing gay-supportive messages. “We’re very pleased that the school has agreed that it will no longer censor LaStaysha for her support for gay people,” said Rose Saxe, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian & Gay Rights Project. “As we’ve been explaining to Webb City High School all along, schools can’t censor a student solely because his or her point of view may cause others to act disruptively.”

In its landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that students in public schools don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and ruled that schools can only censor student speech when the speech itself — and not other people’s reaction to it — is disruptive to the educational process. The ACLU noted that many schools have misinterpreted this notion, arbitrarily calling student speech disruptive in an attempt to illegally censor free speech. The ACLU cautioned schools against censoring students merely because disruption is feared or because other students are causing disruption in reaction to that speech.

“LaStaysha Myers is a remarkably brave young woman for standing up to Webb City High School,” said Dick Kurtenbach, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “No matter what your point of view on what she has to say, we should all be applauding her for making sure that all students at her school can freely enjoy their First Amendment rights.”

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court in April against Webb City High School for violating Myers’ First Amendment right to free speech. Claiming that her t-shirts were “disruptive” school officials sent her home from school twice last November for wearing homemade t-shirts; first, one bearing several handwritten slogans such as “I support the gay rights!” and “Who are we to judge?” and the next day one that bore a rainbow and the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “gay”: “M[e]rry, happy.” On both occasions Myers had just arrived at school and no apparent reaction to the shirts had taken place.

The LGBT Task Force of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri worked with Saxe at the national ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in handling Myers’s complaint, with William Fleischaker of Fleischaker, Williams and Powell as co-counsel.

Legal documents, photos, and additional information on the case, LaStaysha Myers v. Jeff Thornsberry, Stephen Gollhofer, and Ronald Lankford, can be viewed online at: /caseprofiles.

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