Utah high school in free-speech battle with gay students

BY admin

May 13 2004 11:00 PM ET

Administrators at Hillcrest High School in Salt Lake City said they were not being antigay when they asked a group of students to remove T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Queers kick ash." The shirts, which were part of an antismoking campaign targeted at gay and lesbian youths, were deemed potentially disruptive to the school environment because of the words "kick ash," they said, and per the district's dress code they were not allowed.

But the students, several of whom were suspended on May 6 and May 7 for refusing to remove the shirts, had a different story. They claimed that assistant principal David Breen told them he disapproved of the word "queer" and that he threatened to close down the school's gay-straight alliance if they didn't comply. And they say they've got a tape recording to prove it.

"There is a tape," Chris Hampton, public education associate for the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, told Advocate.com. "Actually, there are two tapes."

Hampton said quotes used in an ACLU press release, in which Breen was said to have voiced disapproval of the word queer and threatened to bring the GSA to "a screeching halt," came directly from one of the tapes, which were secretly recorded during two separate meetings between the students and Breen. The ACLU claims the students have a free-speech right to wear the shirts on campus. The ACLU have formally asked the school to reverse the ban and remove any suspensions from the students' records by May 20.

"Our concern is that this is an antismoking shirt making a political statement," Margaret Plane, an attorney with the ACLU of Utah, told Advocate.com. "There was no disruption. Rather than sending the kids home, it could have been an educational experience for everyone. We understand how difficult it is for schools, but we understood that this went a little far."

Breen (whose out gay son, Matthew Breen, is associate editor for Out magazine, a division of LPI Media Inc., which owns Advocate.com) said he was merely upholding a school policy that applies to all students regarding potentially disruptive slogans on clothing. He took issue with the ACLU's press release, which implied that he is antigay when in fact he was one of those primarily responsible for facilitating the launch of the GSA at the beginning of this school year. Breen declined to be quoted for this story, but he did tell Advocate.com that he utterly refutes having said he was opposed to the word queer or that he said he would bring the GSA to "a screeching halt." He has knowledge of the tapes, he said, adding that there is no way he could be heard saying those things on them.

The Utah high school conflict exposed the potentially volatile situation that can arise when two parties seem to be acting in the students' best interests for different reasons. The school claims it is protecting gay and lesbian students from harm, while the ACLU claims it is protecting their free-speech rights. Both say they are supportive of openly gay students.

"We're trying to do everything we can to so stop bullying in our school," Ted Lovato, executive director of the Jordon School District, told Advocate.com. "The term "kicking ash" is not a pleasant term. To me, that's a very negative connotation. The dress policy is centered on the disruption of the educational environment and the direction of the school. The policy uses language that says the students cannot bring undue attention to themselves. If we allow any group to come in and promote whatever they're promoting, then do we allow a group of kids to wear T-shirts that promote hatred?"

Lovato said he didn't know all the specifics in the case but that he does know Breen and Breen is not antigay--or anti-queer. But he did admit that the word still stirs negative feelings among many older school officials, especially in a place like Utah. "Of course the word queer is now acceptable nationwide," he said. "But I guess we all need an education on that. I was always taught that queer was a negative term. What's going to prevent a dumb jock from coming up to these kids and saying, 'I don't like queers'?"

Hampton disagreed with that reasoning, saying the larger issue of free speech is much more important. "If there's disruption in school because there's a bunch of homophobic kids, then that's what the school should be dealing with," she said. "Some schools are trying to protect students, but if a student wants to express a view and isn't disrupting the class, they should be allowed to do that. If a kid had a shirt that said 'Riot in the hallways,' that's probably not protected. But this was something very positive. It's about not smoking. We have heard about other schools in the area where kids are wearing these shirts and there's nothing happening."

The ACLU based its decision to represent the students on Tinker v. Des Moines School District, a 1969 Supreme Court case in which the justices upheld public school students' First Amendment rights to wear black armbands at school to protest the Vietnam War. "You can't suppress speech just because it might cause disruption," Hampton said.

Eliza Byard, deputy executive director for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, said he believes the school should have done a better job of considering the shirts in the right context. "The irony here is that the purpose of the T-shirts is completely laudable," he said. "There's a new effort to push all gay people to quit smoking. All schools confront the issue of political speech in school. [They need to have the] ability to discern the language in different contexts. It appears that they, unfortunately, may not have been clear about the intent [of the T-shirts]."

But Breen said he is standing behind his actions and that the school would not respond to the ACLU's demands. He has no intention of closing the GSA and believes he was doing the right thing for all students, gay and straight.

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