ACLU Sues Missouri High School for Censoring Gay Student

Affiliate: ACLU of Kansas
November 23, 2004 12:00 am

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WEBB CITY, MO – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court today against a high school that twice punished a student for wearing t-shirts bearing gay pride messages and banned him from wearing the shirts to school again. Attorneys for 16-year-old Brad Mathewson also asked for a court order to stop the school from further censoring his speech.

Brad Mathewson

Brad Mathewson displays one of the T-shirts that school officials said could be considered “offensive.”

“Because I’m gay, my school is trying to take away my Constitutional right as an American to express myself. The school lets other students wear anti-gay t-shirts, and I understand that they have a right to do that. I just want the same right,” said Mathewson. He added, “I think tolerating each other’s differences is a key part in teaching students how to become good citizens.”

Mathewson was disciplined twice in October by Webb City High School officials for wearing t-shirts supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and was later suspended after school officials refused to meet with his mother without the Mathewsons’ attorney present. Although Mathewson had worn one of the shirts to school at least six times before without incident, Principal Stephen P. Gollhofer now claims he was concerned the t-shirts might offend other students. Students with opposing beliefs on the same issues are allowed to express their views, as anti-gay t-shirts and bumperstickers are common in the hallways at Webb City High School.

“What’s happening to Brad Mathewson is a clear-cut case of censorship under the Constitution,” said Dick Kurtenbach, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “We intend to make sure Webb City High School stops breaking the law and treats all of its students equally regardless of their views.”

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark ACLU case Tinker v. Des Moines that students have a Constitutional right to free speech. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “Schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. Students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gates.” The ACLU relies on Tinker in Mathewson’s case, filed today before the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

Mathewson was sent to the principal’s office by his homeroom teacher on October 20 after she spotted his t-shirt bearing the name of the Gay-Straight Alliance club at his old high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas; a pink triangle; and the words, “Make a Difference!” When an assistant principal saw it, he told Mathewson he couldn’t wear the shirt at school because someone might be offended by it. Although Mathewson pointed out the anti-gay marriage stickers seen throughout the school, his concerns were ignored. Mathewson was again disciplined when he came to school on October 27 wearing a t-shirt featuring a rainbow and the phrase, “I’m gay and I’m proud.”

Webb City High School’s dress code reads, in part: “Dress and appearance must not present health or safety hazards, be indecent, disruptive, distracting, or inappropriate for the classroom.” School officials have yet to offer any evidence of Mathewson having violated any part of the policy.

“The school claims we’re trying to make them change their dress code, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Brad Mathewson’s shirts didn’t violate the dress code to begin with,” said Jolie Justus, one of the attorneys handling Mathewson’s case. She added, “If Webb City High School were enforcing its own policies fairly and equally, we wouldn’t have to take this to court at all.”

Members of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Fayetteville High School have expressed their support for Mathewson’s effort to express his beliefs, issuing the following public statement about the matter: “In school we have learned about the First Amendment and the rest of the U.S. Constitution. We at Fayetteville High School are fortunate in that we have an administration, faculty, and student population that aspire to live by the heart of the Constitution. We wish the same for Brad’s new community and every community.”

The recently formed LGBT Task Force of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri is working with the national ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in handling Mathewson’s complaint. Jolie L. Justus and Terrence J. Sexton of Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. are lead counsel, and William Fleischaker of Fleischaker, Williams and Powell is co-counsel.

The complaint in Mathewson’s case is online here .

The preliminary injunction memo is online here .

More information about the ACLU’s work to protect the rights of LGBT students can be found online here:

Just last year, the ACLU twice won similar disputes in Michigan:
Judge Rules in Favor of Michigan Student’s Right to Wear Anti-War T-Shirt to School
Michigan School Reverses Student’s Suspension For Wearing “Anarchy” T-Shirt

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