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Spencer-Van Etten Students’ First Amendment Rights


Statement of Barrie Gewanter to Spencer-Van Etten School Board about students’ First Amendment rights October 23, 2007 I come to you as a representative of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. As you know, we have been in contact with the district’s attorney since October 3rd about the incident in which student Heathrye Farnham was sent home because of the message “gay? fine by me” that was printed on her T-shirt. I created packets of information for you which include three letters that we have sent to the district since that time. First, I want to say thank you to the district and to your attorney, Jim Young, for the opportunity to engage in dialogue about the First Amendment implications of the district’s action against Heathrye as it represented censorship of her intended message. We prefer to attempt to resolve issues through such dialogue rather than resort to a lawsuit, especially when a school district is involved and such litigation could be both lengthy and costly. So far we are pleased that the district has admitted that a mistake was made when Heathrye was sent home by the high school principal because of the message on her shirt. We note that this admission appeared in the Ithaca Journal today and sympathize with the difficulty involved in admitting such a mistake. But the reality is that the authority of even a high school principal is not absolute. A principal’s authority can end where a student’s constitutional rights begin. We were also very pleased that I was permitted to address the faculty of the high school yesterday to review some of the parameters and considerations involved in student’s expression of First Amendment rights. These situations are often difficult and have to be taken on case-by-case basis with an actual understanding of the student’s intended message and audience. It is unusual that a district would permit us to have this kind of direct contact with faculty, and that is a definite positive step. However, one crucial issue does remain, and for us it is at the crux of the matter. The act of censorship against Heathrye that Friday communicated a larger message to the students – it’s not OK to communicate messages supportive of people or students who may be gay. Remember that this action was initiated in the school cafeteria, in front of a large number of students on a Friday. Then we are told that four female students, a freshman, two sophomores, and a junior, were also censored when they displayed similar messages on their clothing or their hands or in one case via a sticky note on her T-shirt. The overall effect of this is to place an icy chill on any student that would like to convey a message, whether public or private, of support for other students who may be gay or in a process of questioning their sexual identity. The effect of the school’s actions are clear. This is not safe. Gay is not OK here. There could be repercussions. This perception was only exacerbated when some fliers about distribution of these T-shirts was torn off the wall last Friday by school personnel. This chill needs to be addressed – quickly and directly to the students. Unfortunately, Mr. Young has indicated that the district is unwilling to do this. He will not arrange for any message to be communicated directly to the students of this high school that they have a right to convey controversial messages on their clothing, including messages supportive of people who may be gay. It is our position that to fully resolve this issue we have with the district, this or a similar message must be communicated directly to the students in some fashion, and soon. In respect to the students, you cannot cure the chill of censorship with silence. The district is willing to admit its mistake to the press. The district is willing to correct misperceptions about the permissibility of such controversial messages to the faculty. Why would the district be unwilling to communicate this to its students as well? It seems highly hypocritical for the district to be willing to admit its error and clarify the applicable law to everyone except the students it is supposed to serve. I suggest to you that this is a teachable moment and an opportunity for the district to be true to the good words stated on the homepage district’s Web site. The Web site suggests that Spencer-Van Etten Schools are “committed to developing learners” who are “independent thinkers” and “communicators” who “think divergently” and “take risks” and act to enhance “self-esteem” and “positive self-image.” I suggest that this is exactly what Heathrye was trying to demonstrate. You should be encouraging students to follow their own conscience as well, as long as they are within the law and do not act to intimidate, humiliate or harass others. By refusing to clarify their rights to individual expression to these students after an act or acts of censorship, I suggest you are doing the opposite. A representative of the district said to us that this issue does not concern the people served by this district. I think you can see that this is not so. This representative also suggested that no one besides Heathrye had been harmed by this act of censorship. I suggest to you that this is not so. Your Web site suggests that your district believes in creating “a respectful and trusting environment.” For the youth here who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexual identity, because of the censorship of this particular message, this educational environment may no longer seem safe. In your packets I have given you information about the challenges faced by these LGBTQ youth in schools. The stories are from students in the Syracuse area, but there experiences are universal. In deciding whether to meet our demand of communicating a corrective message directly to your students, I ask you to first consider these facts and stories, and consider your obligation to create an environment of equal learning opportunity for all. If you are of the opinion that this is not a problem here in the district, let me ask you to read the recent words of the valedictorian of the Spencer-Van Etten class of 1995, who was afraid to come out in this high school. “Throughout high school I watched straight classmates be rejected for even being perceived as gay. By my senior year I was extremely depressed. I managed to finish my schoolwork and graduate as valedictorian, while I kept a smile on my face hiding the truth…. But fear is a powerful motivator for staying silent.” “I am not asking parents or school officials to change the ways they think and believe in private, even though it may differ from my own. What I am asking is that the administration do whatever is necessary in a public school to foster a safe learning environment for all students. Every youth deserves to go to a school where no one implies that it is okay to hate or fear them. The administration needs to recognize that there always have been, and always will be, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students at Spencer-Van Etten High School. ……The administration, faculty, and staff have a responsibility to protect the dignity of all students, regardless of any controversy that surrounds their identity.” This student, Meredith Ernisse, did not feel that she had a safe enough learning environment here to be open and proud of who she was, despite all her academic accomplishments. I ask you to do what is necessary to ensure that current and future students here truly have that opportunity. Cure the Chill. Tell the students directly that they have the right to say what they feel, even if it’s a message supportive of their gay friends and family members.

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