A High School's Tumult Makes it to Court

Over a sharply-worded dissent, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this afternoon that Poway High School in southern California can ban students from wearing t-shirts "with messages that condemn and denigrate other students on the basis of their sexual orientation." The t-shirt in question? One that included the message: "Homosexuality is Shameful" on its back and a pointed criticism of school officials on its front.

Federal and state courts wrestle all the time with these sorts of cases that define and refine the boundaries of what students can and cannot do while they are in public school. The law is quite clear that students, minors, have fewer first amendment rights than do adults. After that, it can be a crapshoot. But what is striking to me about the story of Poway High School is not this ruling by a federal appeals court but the chaos that was taking place within the high school that led to the policy that led to the student in question being told he couldn't wear that shirt to school. That history is contained in the links above but I'll paste a brief summary here from the language of the majority ruling.

"In 2003, the School permitted a student group called the Gay-Straight Alliance to hold a "Day of Silence" at the School which, in the words of an Assistant Principal, is intended to 'teach tolerance of others, particularly those of a different sexual orientation.' During the days surrounding the 2003 'Day of Silence,' a series of incidents and altercations occurred on the school campus as a result of anti-homosexual comments that were made by students. One such confrontation required the Principal to separate students physically. According to David LeMaster, a teacher at Poway, several students were suspended as a result of these conflicts.

Moreover, a week or so after the 'Day of Silence,' a group of heterosexual students informally organized a 'Straight-Pride Day,' during which they wore T-shirts which displayed derogatory remarks about homosexuals. According to Assistant Principal Lynell Antrim, some students were asked to remove the shirts and did so, while others 'had an altercation and were suspended for their actions.' Because of these conflicts in 2003, when the Gay-Straight Alliance sought to hold another 'Day of Silence' in 2004, the School required the organization to consult with the Principal to 'problem solve' and find ways to reduce tensions and potential altercations. On April 21, 2004, the date of the 2004 'Day of Silence,' appellant Tyler Chase Harper wore a T-shirt to school on which 'I WILL NOT ACCEPT WHAT GOD HAS CONDEMNED,' was handwritten on the front and 'HOMOSEXUALITY IS SHAMEFUL "Romans 1:27'" was handwritten on the back."

By Andrew Cohen |  July 31, 2006; 4:00 PM ET
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