Arkansas school responds to suit

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 16 2003 12:00 AM ET

An Arkansas school district being sued by an openly gay student says he can talk about his sexual orientation all he wants, as long as it doesn't interfere with the operation of the school he attends. Therefore, the Pulaski County School District said Monday in a U.S. district court filing, there is no reason for the court to issue an injunction to protect his freedom of speech.

The student, 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin, and his parents sued the district last week, claiming that officials had restricted his right to talk about his sexual orientation. They requested an injunction allowing the Jacksonville Junior High School student to speak freely while the lawsuit is pending.

Jay Bequette, an attorney for the school district, said McLaughlin's free-speech rights are already protected under district policy. "Thomas, like any other student within the Pulaski County Special School District, is free to express his opinions, even on controversial subjects, if he does so without...interfering with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and without colliding with the rights of others," Bequette wrote.

On Thursday, Bequette participated in a conference call with attorneys for the ACLU and U.S. district judge G. Thomas Eisele. After that call, the ACLU said it is satisfied with Bequette's restating of district policy concerning free speech.

Eisele said he would decide how to proceed after receiving the district's written response to the ACLU's request for an injunction, the judge's office said. That was the motion that arrived at court Monday.

Rita Sklar, head of the state chapter of the ACLU, said a hearing to discuss the preliminary injunction may not be necessary, based on Thursday's call.

In Monday's filing, the district admitted there are factual disputes in the lawsuit that need to be worked out but said McLaughlin cannot show that he's been harmed because of the "long-standing policy which recognizes his right of freedom of speech and expression under the law." The school district's policy, which was attached to the filing, also states that students are responsible for avoiding offensive obscenity and slander or saying something just to infringe on someone else's rights.