Student prevails in T-shirt dispute – too bad it took a lawsuit

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fortunately, Ohio high school student Maverick Couch prevailed in his dispute with Wayne Local School District, earning the right to wear a T-shirt with the message “Jesus Is Not A Homophobe.” Too bad he had to file a lawsuit to earn that right.

School officials should know better. They can’t ban student speech simply because they don’t like it. There is something called the First Amendment — the first 45 words of the Bill of Rights — that should protect a broad swath of student expression. Often it doesn’t — particularly when there are pro-gay and lesbian messages.

The controversy began in April 2011, when Couch wore a T-shirt with a rainbow ichthys (fish) and the Jesus message at Waynesville High School on National Day of Silence — a day held every April in part to increase awareness about harassment and bullying suffered by gay and lesbian students.

According to the complaint in Couch v. Wayne School District, Principal Randy Gebhardt ordered Couch to turn the shirt inside out even though it had caused no disruption of school. Couch complied. He wore the shirt again a week later, after spring break. The same thing happened, as Gebhardt ordered him to remove the shirt or face a suspension.

In January 2012, Lambda Legal sent a letter on Couch’s behalf to the principal, asserting Couch’s free-speech rights. The next month, the Wayne Local School District Board of Education responded that Couch’s shirt was indecent and sexual in nature and could lawfully be banned.

That led to a lawsuit in federal district court. On May 21, the parties entered into an “agreed judgment.” Under the settlement signed by the parties and U.S. District Judge Michael R. Barrett, Couch can wear the T-shirt any day he wishes. Furthermore, the school district must pay attorneys’ fees in the amount of $20,000 before July 5.

The public school officials in this case could have avoided this imbroglio and attorney-fee payment by respecting Couch’s constitutional rights in the first place. Too many gay and lesbian students face repression and the suppression of their free-speech rights when wearing gay-themed message clothing.

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