Amid lawsuit, Wis. school board OKs gay-straight club

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The West Bend (Wis.) School Board last night approved formal recognition of a gay-straight alliance student club – reversing a previous board vote to deny the club official status, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Students sued the school district in May, arguing the district was violating the federal Equal Access Act and First Amendment right to free speech by refusing to recognize the club. The board approved the group on the condition that the lawsuit be dropped.

According to public records, two law firms advised the board that the students would likely prevail in the suit and that the cost of litigation would have been at least several hundred thousand dollars. Still, the measure passed only 4-3.

The Equal Access Act prohibits public schools from discriminating against student clubs on the basis of viewpoint. As First Amendment Center scholar David L. Hudson Jr. notes, courts have applied the act to gay and lesbian student clubs before. In a 2003 case, Boyd County High School Gay-Straight Alliance v. Board of Education of Boyd County, a federal district court in Kentucky held that school administrators could not treat a gay-straight alliance club differently from any other student club and stay consistent with the Equal Access Act. (See also Colin ex rel. Colin v. Orange Unified School Dist. (2000); SAGE v. Osseo Area Schools—District No. 279 (2007); Gay-Straight Alliance of Okeechobee High Sch. v. Okeechobee Sch. Bd. (2007).)

“The Equal Access Act serves a vital purpose in public schools by allowing many student groups to meet even though some may disagree with their ideologies, religions or politics,” Hudson wrote in the Clubs article. “It enables interested students to assemble to discuss ideas, projects and goals.”

First Amendment Center intern Jonathan Anderson is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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