In a court conference held Thursday, Arkansas's Pulaski County Special School District agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union and a federal judge that students have a constitutional right to be openly gay in school. "We're very pleased that the court recognized right away that a school has no place telling gay students that they can't be out of the closet at school," said Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
In talks with ACLU attorneys representing 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin and counsel for the school district, U.S. district judge G. Thomas Eisele said that under the First Amendment, schools cannot silence or restrict students' speech unless it is disruptive. The school's attorney agreed when Eisele asked if the school would adhere to the conditions the ACLU had asked for in its motion: that the school not restrict McLaughlin's speech during noninstructional time with regard to his sexual orientation or punishments he has received from school officials. Eisele went on to tell attorneys that he would expedite the trial in McLaughlin's lawsuit, which the ACLU filed Tuesday.
"We're absolutely thrilled with what Judge Eisele had to say this afternoon," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. "Thomas McLaughlin has been muzzled by his teachers and administrators for far too long, and in America, schools can't do that."
The conference clears the way for the lawsuit, in which the ACLU contends that school officials violated McLaughlin's rights to free speech, equal protection, and privacy and that they violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by preaching to him and forcing him to read the Bible as punishment.