Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"In part because I have gay relatives and friends, I hold the political belief that the gay people and their supporters should be treated with fairness and dignity. I also hold the political belief that gay people and their supporters should be able to express their pro-gay political beliefs."
With those words, LaStaysha Myers, a 15-year-old Webb City High School sophomore picked up the banner dropped by her gay friend, high school dropout Brad Mathewson, and filed a lawsuit today in U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri against the Webb City R-7 Superintendent Ron Lankford, High School Principal Stephen Gollhofer and Assistant Principal Jeff Thornsberry.
As you may remember, Mathewson filed a lawsuit against the school district and school officials in November 2004 after school officials told him he had to either remove his Gay Pride t-shirts or go home. The lawsuit was dropped after Mathewson dropped out of school in December.
Ms. Myers is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, with Joplin attorney Jim Fleischaker taking the lead on the case.
Ms. Myers explained her position in a declaration filed as part of the petition. "In the fall of 2004," she said, "I learned that defendants had engaged in a pattern of censorship of pro-gay student expression, and that the actions taken by defendants had become a subject of civic discourse. As a result, I was moved to express my own pro-gay political beliefs."
The petition does not say whether Ms. Myers normally talks like an ACLU lawyer or if she just did so for this declaration.
She continues, "On or about Oct. 20, 2004, I learned that, earlier that day, Thornsberry had censored my friend and classmate Brad Mathewson, who is gay, for wearing a T-shirt to school that expressed his pro-gay political beliefs."
She said Thornsberry told Mathewson the shirt was "inappropriate and offensive, and had instructed him either to change his shirt or turn it inside out. On the front of the t-shirt were the words 'Gay-Straight Alliance' The words referred to a student organization at an out-of-state high school (in Fayetteville, Ark.) in which Brad had previously been enrolled."
The shirt also featured the words "Make a Difference" and symbols of two males, two females and a male and female. "Brad had previously worn the t-shirt to school on multiple occasions without incident," Ms. Myers said.
She said that on Oct. 27 she learned that Thornsberry had censored Mathewson and another friend and classmate of hers for wearing gay pride t-shirts. The friend had a shirt with the words, "I love lesbians."
On Nov. 7, she said, "I learned that Lankford and Gollhofer had informed Brad that he would not be allowed in school unless he refrained from wearing clothing expressing his pro-gay political beliefs."
A little over three weeks later, she said, the controversial anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., and "a handful of his supporters" staged a protest saying Mathewson should not be able to express his beliefs.
"That night, with assistance from my mother Leda Myers, I made a t-shirt bearing several slogans expressing support for gay people." The shirt contained such slogans as "I Support the Gay Rights," "Love Who You Want To," and "Who are we to Judge," "I Support Them All the Way," and "We All Have the Right To Be Who We Want to Be." Several of Ms. Myers' friends also made similar t-shirts.
"(They" cannot show that any disruption resulted from the t-shirts themselves. Indeed, my friends and I did not even make it to our first classes for the day before Thornsberry and Gollhofer stopped us.
"If any disruption occurred, it resulted from (their) own response to the t-shirts."
Ms. Myers and her friends were given the same instructions Mathewson had been given earlier, change shirts or turn them inside out. "When we refused to do so, (they) sent us home. When my mother picked me up from school, Thornsberry informed her that I would be further disciplined if I were to wear my t-shirt to school again."
The declaration indicates that Ms. Myers was not deterred by the administrator's warning. "That night, with assistance from my mother, I made a new T-shirt, bearing Webster's dictionary definition of the word 'gay' 'marry (sic) happy.' I did so because I wanted to communicate that there is nothing wrong with the word 'gay.' "
She wore the new shirt to school the next day, the declaration said. "I believed that I was allowed to do so because it was not the t-shirt that I had worn the previous day." Before she reached her first class, she said, Thornsberry and Gollhofer stopped her. Again, she noted, if any disruption occurred, it was because of their reaction to the shirt.
They told her to change her shirt and she refused, so they sent her home. Again, her mother was warned that Ms. Myers would be disciplined if she were to wear any clothing expressing pro-gay sentiments.
Ms. Myers also expressed the sentiments expressed earlier in the Mathewson lawsuit that other students were allowed to wear clothing and exhibit signs that showed anti-gay sentiment. "I have observed one of my classmates wearing a t-shirt to school expressing his anti-gay political beliefs, i.e, 'Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.' I have further observed several of my classmates wearing t-shirts, buttons, stickers, etc., to school expressing their pro-religion political beliefs, e.g., 'WWJD?' What Would Jesus Do" God's Army Recruit (with a cross and shield), etc."
Ms. Myers said she would like to wear her shirts again, but "I have not done so for fear of further discipline. I am deeply concerned by the pattern of censorship of pro-gay student expression that defendants have exhibited."
LaStaysha Myers is asking for a preliminary injunction that would allow her to wear clothing that expresses her pro-gay political beliefs, according to her petition.
The actions taken by Lankford, Gollhofer, and Thornberry violated Ms. Myers' First Amendment rights, according to the petition. The landmark "Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District" in which the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that students do not "shed (their) constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," is cited in the petition.
"In Tinker, the Court overruled a public school's ban on students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The court held that, despite the intense emotional controversy surround the war and students' dissent against it- a former student of the high school had been killed in the war- school authorities could not have reasonably anticipated that wearing black armbands in protest of the war in class would materially and substantially disrupt the operation of the school or interfere with the rights of others."
The petition says the Tinker ruling emphasized that the students "engaged in silent passive expression that generated discussion, but did not provoke disorder or an interference with the school's work."
The petition said, "It is especially noteworthy that defendants cannot offer any basis upon which the court might find that school officials reasonably concluded that wearing t-shirts that express political support for gay rights would provoke disorder or an interference with the school's work. Like Tinker, the school administrators here were acting on an 'undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance."
Ms. Myers wearing her t-shirts "has had no negative effect on the educational mission of Webb City High School, nor will it adversely affect any student's rights. After all the Webb City High School Statement of Philosophy proclaims that school officials 'realize the uniqueness of the individual' and aim to celebrate students 'for their own value as a human being (s).' "

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