CELINA — The controversy over T-shirts supporting gay rights at Celina High School has attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio — and the group has quickly sided with the students.
The group sent a letter to the school Thursday, urging administrators to reconsider their “unconstitutional decision” to prohibit students from wearing shirts that express their support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
“Schools should be a place where students are free to express their beliefs,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman. “None of these young people acted inappropriately and only wished to express their support for all members of their community. Expressing their views did not disrupt the learning environment, but now the administration’s unconstitutional overreaction has.”
About 20 students decided to wear the shirts Tuesday after school officials previously made two female students remove shirts with the word “lesbian” on it, according to sophomore Cheyenna Osborne. The homemade shirts said things like “Straight but Supportive.”
School officials asked students to remove the shirts, saying they were disrupting education. Superintendent Jesse Steiner said Wednesday that students were asked, not forced, to remove them and that their rights to freedom of speech were not violated. The shirts were causing talk at the school, he said. Steiner could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Students say the shirts were not disturbing classes and believe they were asked to take them off because people did not like the message.
“The school has silenced these students on the basis that other individuals who disagree with their message may become upset and disruptive,” Hardiman said. “This amounts to a ‘heckler’s veto’ and is not a valid justification for suppressing free speech.”
Students have said that shirts with anti-abortion messages have been permitted at the school. That doesn’t sit well with the ACLU.
“Allowing some students to wear shirts with political messages, while prohibiting others from doing the same thing is a clear case of unconstitutional censorship,” Hardiman said.
The ACLU plans to continue to investigate, including soliciting information from students and parents “regarding a culture of censorship and viewpoint discrimination in Celina High School.”