Waymon Hudson

Students Win Precedent Setting GSA fight

Filed By Waymon Hudson | July 31, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: ACLU, Florida, Gay-Straight Alliance, GSA

"Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Yesterday, Federal Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that school officials in Okeechobee, Florida, must allow a Gay-Straight Alliance to form at their high school, ending a two-year long legal battle.

The battle for recognition of the GSA began when then-student Yasmin Gonzalez and her girlfriend were prohibited from going to the school prom as a couple. It was one of several incidents specifically targeting LGBT students at Okeechobee High School and led to the students to seek the formation a GSA.

The school denied the club, so the determined students sought the help of the ACLU.

The ACLU argued that the Equal Access Act stipulates that when a school allows any non-curricular club to meet on campus, it must allow all non-curricular clubs to meet on campus. The school district argued that the Equal Access Act did not apply to GSAs because Florida law requires schools to teach abstinence and "the benefits of monogamous marriage."

The judge upheld his earlier ruling that GSAs do not interfere with abstinence-only education and in a precedent setting legal first, holds that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students, stating:

Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. The desire of the GSA to meet as a group to discuss matters pertinent to the challenges presented by their non-heterosexual identity and to build understanding and trust with other heterosexual students sounds in the political speech addressed in Tinker.

"Tinker" refers to Tinker v. Des Moines, a U.S. Supreme Court decision from the 1970's that clearly established students' right to free speech in public schools. The case was also referenced in the recent Gillman v. School Board for Holmes County, Fla., a first amendment case won by the ACLU in May. In the trial, the high school principal testified that he believed clothing or stickers featuring rainbows would make students automatically picture gay people having sex.

This order will allow the LGBT students to meet on campus, just as other non-curricular clubs do, to discuss issues like bullying, tolerance and discrimination. GSAs are an important tool that have been shown to help students feel safer at school, as well as provide a forum for students to discuss their fears, experiences, and challenges.

I am so proud of these students who would not be silenced or denied their rights. To fight against a school board so squarely set against them is brave beyond their years. The demeaning language of the arguments used against them did not deter them in the least.

Brittany Martin, a 17-year-old upcoming senior at OHS who is the GSA's new president, says it best:

I can't tell you how happy I am that the judge agreed we have a right to create a safe space for gay students at my school. All we've ever wanted was to have a club to talk about tolerance and harassment so we can try to make our school a better place for all students.

Congratulations to these amazing students, and to the ACLU, for winning important rights and setting important legal precedents in Florida. It is good to see a new generation of empowered, strong LGBT youth fighting for their rights!

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Yay for the kids!

But I think "Tinker" wasn't referring to the Gillman case, but to the famous free speech in schools case from the Vietnam era.

Oops! You're right, Alex. It was referred to in the Gillman case as well, which is where I got mixed up.

Regardless- these kids are AMAZING!! Good for them for continuing the fight for over two years and winning rights for themselves and others after them!

The reference, for the record, to Tinker:

“Tinker” refers to Tinker v. Des Moines, a U.S. Supreme Court decision from the 1970’s that clearly established students’ right to free speech in public schools. The quote about the schoolhouse gate is from the Tinker decision too. The Gillman case -- the one with the crazy anti-rainbow principal (also in Florida ) -- was in a lower federal court. The Gillman decision was based on Tinker, and the judge in the Okeechobee case references both in his decision.

Thanks to Projector Chris (from the ACLU) for the background for all our legal eagles out there. :)

And a huge thank you to the ACLU for their work to defend the rights of us all...

Nathanial | July 31, 2008 1:15 PM

I have been following this case in Okeechobee -- and the issue of GSAs in general -- over on another (Canadian-based) discussion board for some time now, and I think it might provide some useful history/background/context for any who might be interested in such.

Go here: http://enmasse.ca/forums/viewtopic.php?t=5728&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0

for stories on a slew of cases, including Okeechobee...

Unfortunately, we are dealing with extremely irrational people who have been indoctrinated at a very early age.

ADF and Liberty Counsel tend to litigate these things forever. That is particularly true when a decision establishes precedence. I have been watching for the usual gratuitous "activist judge" and "legislating from the bench" reactions (which both mean "we lost a case").

As in Lemons v. Bradbury, prepare for a long, hard fight. However, this decision by a rather conservative judge demonstrates real progress