ACLU Sues School Over Free Speech

On behalf of a 16 year-old named Heather Gillman, the ACLU is suing a Florida high school for suppression of free speech. This comes after school officials ruled that any declaration of support for gay rights, such as a rainbow sticker on a notebook or saying “I support gay people” were signs that the students belonged to a “secret/illegal organization.”

“Because the Supreme Court has held that students have a right to free speech at school unless that speech disrupts the educational process, many administrators think they can just slap the label ‘disruptive’ on anything they don’t like and get away with stomping on students’ First Amendment rights. The law doesn’t work that way,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “School should be a marketplace of ideas, where students share new ideas and learn about themselves and others. Just talking about gay rights or any other topic outside of class isn’t inherently disruptive.”

In the complaint filed today, the ACLU asked the court for an injunction to stop Ponce de Leon High School officials from suppressing students’ First Amendment rights in the future.

“Writing something like ‘I support gay rights’ on your notebook doesn’t mean you’re part of some secret conspiracy or shadowy organization,” said Christine Sun, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “Schools shouldn’t be in the business of trying to frighten students into silence.”

Ponce de Leon High School is located halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee, in Florida’s panhandle. According to the school’s website, about 400 students are enrolled there. Heather Gillman is represented by Stevenson and Robert Rosenwald of the ACLU of Florida and Sun of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.

The ACLU will be holding a press conference with Heather Gillman today.