ACLU files suit against Arkansas school district

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 08 2003 11:00 PM ET

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court on Tuesday against Arkansas's Pulaski County Special School District for its alleged treatment of an openly gay 14-year-old student. The lawsuit contends that school officials violated Thomas 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 read the Bible as punishment.

"We tried to work with the district to reach a settlement that would protect Thomas McLaughlin's constitutional rights and allow him to be open about his sexual orientation," said James Esseks, litigation director for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "They were offered ample opportunity to do the right thing here, but the district refused to meet our demands, so we're taking them to court to ensure that other lesbian and gay students in the district wouldn't face similar discrimination."

In papers filed with the U.S. district court for the Eastern district of Arkansas, the ACLU is seeking an injunction to prevent Jacksonville Junior High School from further restricting McLaughlin's speech with regard to his sexual orientation or past discipline he's been subjected to by school officials. "All I want out of this is for me and other gay students to be able to go to school without being preached to and without being expected to lie about who we are," McLaughlin said.

The ACLU sent a letter to the district on March 13 describing how Jacksonville Junior High School faculty and administrators had allegedly "outed" McLaughlin to his parents without his permission, preached to him, made him read the Bible, and disciplined him for talking about his sexual orientation and later for talking about that punishment. McLaughlin's disciplinary record confirms these allegations, the ACLU says.

"Our demands are fairly simple," said ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project staff attorney Leslie Cooper. "The district needs to acknowledge students' First Amendment right to talk about their sexual orientation during noninstructional time. We want the district to expunge Thomas's disciplinary record, and we want them to say in their district policies that they won't violate the constitutional rights of lesbian and gay students."