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Tennessee School System Settles Lawsuit Over Pro-Gay T-Shirt

Rebecca Young

A new dress code satisfies the ACLU's concerns about the prohibition of a "Some People Are Gay" shirt worn by a student. 

A Tennessee school district that refused to allow a student to wear a T-shirt with a gay-supportive slogan has revised its dress code, settling a lawsuit brought by the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Giles County Board of Education changed the dress code for reasons unrelated to the suit, but it does address the concerns of the ACLU's client, Rebecca Young, therefore ending the suit, according to a press release issued this week by the ACLU of Tennessee.

In August 2015, Young, then a senior at Richland High School in Lynnville, wore a shirt to school bearing the words "Some People Are Gay, Get Over It!" No one objected to her shirt until the end of the day, when principal Micah Landers reprimanded Young in the cafeteria, which was filled with students. He told her she could not wear that shirt again or wear any other garment with wording that supports LGBT rights, as such clothing would provoke reactions from other students.

Later, Young's mother called Phillip Wright, director of schools for Giles County, and he said any clothing with a slogan supporting LGBT people or LGBT rights, or even a rainbow symbol, would not be tolerated, as he considered this to be material of a sexual nature and therefore in violation of the dress code, according to the ACLU. The organization filed suit on behalf of Young in November, saying the school system had infringed on her First Amendment right to free speech.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp agreed, granting a preliminary injunction in December against enforcement of the dress code. Pro-LGBT speech was not sexual but political, the judge ruled: "Student expression on LGBT issues is speech on a purely political topic, which falls clearly within the ambit of the First Amendment's protection."

Then in June, the school board approved a new dress code, barring students from wearing any clothing with writing on it, except for a school-approved slogan or brand logo. This satisfied the ACLU, because it "no longer singles out one type of speech for censorship," notes the press release.

Wright told Nashville newspaper The Tennessean the new dress code was not related to the lawsuit, but the suit did bring up issues that needed to be addressed. "We really didn't have a very clear dress code policy," he said. "It basically stated the student could wear anything as long it wasn't offensive. The one thing that the lawsuit has brought to light to us is that we had several board policies that we needed to update."

Thomas H. Castelli, legal director for the ACLU of Tennessee, expressed satisfaction with the situation. "The court made a pretty strong statement that schools can't single out students based on their speech," he told The Tennessean. "I hope this will help other students in the future who are also speaking out on matters of public concern, whether that be LGBT rights or any other issue, without being reprimanded."

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