Debating homosexuality in schools: Censorship doesn’t work

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Junior high student Thomas McLaughlin refuses to keep quiet about being gay. For that, he says, school officials harassed and punished him – even forcing him at one point to read aloud Bible verses and prayers.

Thomas may be only 14, but he’s old enough to demand his First Amendment rights in a court of law (with a little help from his mother and the ACLU).

It worked. Last month McLaughlin’s family and school officials in Pulaski County, Ark., reached a settlement that requires the district to pay McLaughlin $25,000 in damages and attorney fees and to apologize for violating his freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Betsy Hansen is suing her Ann Arbor, Mich., high school for banning speech critical of homosexuality. Hansen, who graduated in June, claims that school officials censored her speech during “diversity week” and barred her from a panel on “religion and homosexuality” because they didn’t like her conservative religious views.

Welcome to our public schools – the latest battleground in the culture war over homosexuality.

Public schools, of course, mirror the public square. As gay and lesbian people become more visible and accepted in our society, growing numbers of gay and lesbian students are coming out and speaking up. Simultaneously, conservative Christian students are also increasingly vocal in public schools, a byproduct of the resurgence of Christian activism in American political life over the past two decades.

As voices on all sides grow louder, conflict and controversy are inevitable. And events this summer may turn up the heat.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court decision against sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, the election of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, and (especially) pop-culture hits such as the TV show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” gay teenagers are likely to push for more acceptance and visibility in schools this year.

Look for a rapid increase in the number of student-organized clubs supporting gay students. More than 1,700 such clubs – usually called Gay-Straight Alliances – have already been formed in high schools across the nation. Although some school boards continue to resist the clubs, the barriers are falling fast.

At the same time, conservative Christian students have formed Christian and Bible clubs in thousands of school districts. Supported by Christian legal groups, they are demanding the right to express their faith – including their views on human sexuality – during the school day.

Caught in the culture-war crossfire, too many school officials try to duck the controversy through censorship. But these efforts to stifle the debate over homosexuality are based on the false hope that harmony and tolerance will prevail if no one is allowed to say anything that might offend anyone.

This was the failed strategy administrators employed against Elliott Chambers, a Minnesota high school student who insisted on wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Straight Pride.” After the principal ordered him to stop wearing the shirt, Chambers sued for the right to express his views. The court ruled in favor of Chambers, reminding the school that genuine tolerance in an educational setting includes tolerance for a diversity of views – even views that others may find offensive.

Censorship was also a failed approach in Boyd County, Ky., where the school board tried to prevent the Gay-Straight Alliance from meeting. Although board members warned of potentially violent opposition to the club, a federal judge refused to allow a “heckler’s veto” and ordered the district to treat the club just like the Bible Club and other student-led groups.

Sweeping polices strictly limiting student speech (for or against homosexuality) are not only wrongheaded, but also are likely to be struck down as unconstitutional. A few years ago, two high school students in Pennsylvania challenged an anti-harassment policy that prohibited a wide range of potentially “offensive” speech, including speech directed at another’s “values.” The students claimed that the policy would ban them from stating their religious beliefs about homosexuality and other topics. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that such a broadly worded policy violates the First Amendment.

Of course, protecting the free speech of students doesn’t mean “anything goes” in a public school. Schools can (and should) ban name-calling and other forms of harassment. And if there is clear evidence that student speech has caused substantial disruption of the school, then it shouldn’t be allowed. But schools should refrain from censoring student viewpoints – for or against homosexuality – merely because such views may offend someone or make some students uncomfortable.

If censorship and strict speech codes aren’t the answer, what is? Let students speak, but simultaneously teach them how to express their views with civility and respect. By linking First Amendment rights to civic responsibility, schools create a learning environment that is safe for all students – but also free.

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