Tennessee high school student Chris Sigler was right when he felt the need to implement a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club at his Monroe County High School. Unfortunately, his attempt to promote a safe environment for LGBT students was met with hostility.
When Sigler wore his handmade T-shirt to school last month he was asked by a teacher if he would cover the words “Gay-Straight Alliance: We’ve Got Your Back,” which he had hand-drawn on the back. Students allegedly made complaints to administrators about the shirt. Sigler, evidently aware of his rights to free speech and sure that he was not in violation of any school dress code, refused to remove the T-shirt and wore it to school again on the following Friday.
After asking Sigler once again to remove the Tshirt to no effect, the school’s principal took matters in to his own hands—literally.
“Principal Maurice Moser came to Sigler’s economic class in the middle of an exam, and demanded that all other students leave the room. Sigler’s sister Jessica refused to leave,” Sigler said in a statement. “Moser grabbed Chris’s arm, shoved him against a wall, and chest-bumped him several times, while asking, ‘Who’s the big man now?’”
“It is totally unacceptable that a young man who was peacefully exercising his First Amendment rights would have his speech shut down by the public school principal. Last week’s incident clearly illustrates the hostile environment LGBT students face at Sequoyah High School,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee, which has been helping Sigler form the GSA and in the current dispute.
On October 18, the Monroe County Board of Education agreed to allow students to wear Tshirts in support of the formation of GSA at the school. The board will also review its dress code to ensure that students’ right to free speech is protected.
Students in public high schools have a First Amendment right to express themselves through their clothing, as long as the messages they send do not cause a “substantial disruption” to instruction at school. Teachers and administrators may not censor student speech on the basis of its viewpoint or content.