The Spencer-Van Etten School District has met a demand from the New York Civil Liberties Union that it send a message directly to its student body affirming students’ constitutional right to free speech. The development occurred in response to the censorship of a Tioga County High School student for wearing a “gay? fine by me” T-shirt.
Heathyre Farnham, a 10th grade student, was sent home from school on Sept. 21 for wearing the T-shirt.
After the New York Civil Liberties Union intervened in October, the school district admitted it had violated Farnham’s free speech rights and agreed to issue a declaration that all high school students are permitted to wear clothing that conveys controversial messages, including messages supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Barrie Gewanter, director of the NYCLU’s Central New York Chapter, worked with NYCLU staff attorneys Matt Faiella and Palyn Hung to represent Farnham, who organized public opposition to the censorship with her mother, Brynda Beeman.
“Heathyre displayed enormous courage in refusing to surrender her First Amendment rights or the rights of her classmates,” Faiella said. “These students stand behind an inclusive message of free speech, and I think that’s great.”
Gewanter delivered a presentation to the high school’s faculty on students’ First Amendment rights on Oct. 22. The following day, the school district’s attorney publicly admitted that the censorship was a mistake. That evening, Gewanter addressed the district’s school board, while Faiella continued to negotiate with the school district’s attorneys about issuing a statement to the high school’s students affirming their free speech rights.
On Nov. 2, the following message, most of which was proposed by the NYCLU, was broadcast over the schools public address system:
“The school dress code does not prohibit students from displaying controversial or political messages. There is a wide range of these types of messages that are acceptable, including messages supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The dress code does prohibit students from displaying obscene or profane words or images or messages promoting the use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco products.”
The school district subsequently issued Farnham a private apology.
Gewanter said the statement and apology were necessary to repair the damage caused by the censorship.
“When you enact censorship like this, it puts a chilling effect on the student body, and you cannot cure this chill with silence,” Gewanter said. “We appreciated the opportunity to address the faculty and school board, but the Spencer-Van Etten school district had the further obligation to inform students that they have First Amendment rights in their school.”
This incident and the resulting publicity raised created an opportunity to educate the school board, faculty, and the community on students’ free speech rights and the challenges some LGBT youth face within their schools.
“The NYCLU feels these are positive developments,” Gewanter said.