Friday, December 28, 2007

Gay Pride T-shirts At School?

The girl wore a t-shirt a teacher didn't like, the school threatens suspension, the ACLU threatens suit. (Yes, the teacher's a ninny, for lack of a better term, but that isn't germane to this discussion.)

What happens when religious students wear "homosexuality is a sin" shirts to school? Hint: the ACLU doesn't take up their case.

What's the difference in these two cases? Either they're both protected by the 1st Amendment, or neither is. I need someone to try to parse this so that one is OK at school and the other isn't, because I just don't see it.

Update, 12/31/07: I'd like to keep this a "dress code" post, not a "homosexuality" post.

Update, 1/1/08: Here's a dress code post I wrote over a year ago.


Donalbain said...

While it may not be germane to the law, I can certainly see a difference in the two t shirts that you talk about, and it is a difference that I think should be reflected in school policy.

The first t shirt (gay pride) is aimed at sending a positive message about the wearer. It says nothing about anyone other than the wearer.

The second t shirt (homosexuality is a sin) is aimed at sending a negative, insulting, message about other people.

To me, that difference should be enough to allow one, but not allow the other in a school setting. Whether the law in the US would agree with me or not is a different matter.

Dawn said...

Do you have an example of where the ACLU didn't take up the cause of a student wearing a 'homosexuality is a sin' shirt?

Fritz J. said...

For anyone who actually believes in free speech, you are right and there is no difference. One either has free speech or one does not. There is no in between stage, and were the ACLU to truly represent what it claims to stand for, it would take up both types of case. That the ACLU does not speaks volumes about the integrity of its leaders.

Cases such as this bring up other questions. Do children have all the rights spelled out in the Constitution and Bylaws of our country, or does a school (K through 12) have the right to limit speech if children do not? Secondly, does any institution, public or private, have the right to set conduct codes for those buying or partaking of its goods or services? Also of importance is the concept of offense to this discussion, ie, if something offends one person is that sufficient reason to ban it? The last question which comes to mind is how could anyone who claims to believe in free speech possibly support hate speech laws?

If anyone is interested in my personal beliefs on these questions I will be more than happy to answer and explain, but I think we all need to think such questions through before simply saying we are for or against something.

Darren said...

Dawn, it's hard to prove a negative, but I can find no instances of the ACLU's supporting students who wore "Homosexuality is a sin" t-shirts. I know of several cases (and I've blogged about them) where students have been suspended for wearing such (or similar) t-shirts, often on the Day of Truth, which not-so-coincidentally happens the day after the Day of Silence.

And Donalbain, while I see your point, I don't see a difference as far as the 1st Amendment is concerned. Under your philosophy, a student could wear a Che Guevara shirt to school but another could not wear a "Commies aren't cool" shirt, one with a picture of Che with the international red slash over him. (Full disclosure: I own such a Commies Aren't Cool shirt.) Yet, "I Hate Blacks" would not be an acceptable shirt to wear, and neither would "White Power". Supporters of the Confederate flag are being positive, but some say that support is negative. How do we codify this?

Here's a point I read on another site about this topic. This isn't an example of "preaching tolerance"--her school must already be a tolerant place, or she wouldn't have felt safe enough to wear such a shirt anyway. This is actually a case of in-your-face, as is the Day of Silence, and I have trouble supporting such things.

Anonymous said...

ill be sporting a homosexuality is a sin shirt on that day of truth

Coach Brown said...

Constitutional rights on high school campuses are limited, simple as that. The Supreme Court has ruled many, many times that the overall welfare of learning and student safety trumps some aspects of the 1st and 4th Amendments. Usually the question of the 1st Amendment centers around two issues:
A: Is it political expression?
B: Could it insight violence and is there evidence to support this?

Nothing, not even in 'regular society', regarding the 1st Amendment is as simple as you make it out to be.

I think any "....... Pride" shirts are a joke. They are nothing but arrogant conversation pieces that end up creating problems. At the same time, "Homosexuality is a Sin" is a lame attempt at attacking a lifestyle. There is nothing expressive about it but negativity.

Legally both should be allowed unless there has been a history of violence regarding gays in the district, in which cares the 'Sin' shirt can be banned.

Easy way about this, school uniforms.

Oh, and I think the real question is why the ACLU is so selective in choosing cases involving civil liberties. Maybe a lawsuit is in order for false advertising.

Darren said...

Short of uniforms, a policy of "no clothing with textual or visual messages" would be content-neutral enough to pass legal muster, no?

I agree--school is *not* the place to express your individuality, it's a place to learn. You have 17 hours a day outside of school to express your individuality. Having said that, though, limits on personal expression in school should be narrowly defined and no more than is necessary to promote a learning environment.

Yes, it's a tightrope. That's why administrators get paid more than teachers, though, in my opinion--to walk that tightrope.

Coach Brown said...

"No clothing with textual or visual messages" would not make it according to the recent "Tigger Socks" case in Napa (read my blog for info).

And good luck with the 'narrowly defined" personal expression limits. Colors, slogans, pictures of David Duke, pictures of Che, Confederate flags, Palestinian could go nuts.

Anonymous said...

"At the same time, 'Homosexuality is a Sin' is a lame attempt at attacking a lifestyle. There is nothing expressive about it but negativity."

A 'Just Say No to Gulags' shirt could also be construed to be expressing negativity (and/or cultural imperialism).

I'm pretty sure I can turn any negative expression into a positive one with enough cleverness. For example, the 'Homosexuality is a Sin' shirt could be converted into one agreeing with whichever verse in Deuteronomy (?) says to stone homosexuals. This is sending a positive message about the wearer, no? The positive message being that they have a moral code in which they believe.

I think we're going to need something other than support vs. opposition to draw a distinction that will stand.

I'll note that workplaces don't seem to have these problems so much. At my workplace, both pro and anti gay t-shirts would be considered unacceptable (because both could be construed as 'creating a hostile workplace'). I think things are less clear for public schools because they are public, but one wonders why we can't find an equivalent policy (supporting unicorns at work would be acceptable, so it isn't just 'no messages.).

-Mark Roulo

Donalbain said...

No. Saying that you support the killing of another individual is most definitely a threat against another person, and so would be against the school policy if I were in charge.
And as for being "in your face", tough luck. If you dont like other people expressing things about themselves, then that is your problem, not theirs. So long as they are not insulting or threatening you or others, it would be fine under my policy.

And as for the ACLU, you need to remember that they take cases where people come to them for help. If a student who was expelled for a christian t shirt actually applied to the ACLU for help, I suspect they would help out, as they often have done for christians and christian groups in the past.

Darren said...

If students can wear "in your face" shirts, can teachers?

"Homosexuality is a sin" is a fairly "in your face" statement, but you wouldn't allow that. Donalbain, your rule isn't content-neutral and so probably wouldn't pass legal muster. However, hasn't a court (low court, somewhere) already ruled that a student can wear a "Bush is a terrorist" shirt--pretty negative message to us conservatives.

All this demonstrates why I don't think school is the appropriate place for such shirts.

Donalbain said...

Teachers are in a different position for a number of reasons.
1) They are in a position of authority and what they say/do can be considered school policy in certain circumstances.
2) They are not forced to be in school against their will.

As for content neutral, I wouldn't want my school policy to be content neutral. I think content is exactly what schools should be clamping down on when it comes to T Shirts. What the law says may vary though. I am talking about what I think SHOULD happen, not what is legal or not.

And as for Bush is a terrorist, that is one of the problems about being a famous person, you lose some of the protection that other people get in society. I would argue that since Bush is unlikely to actually be in the school, the insult is not towards anyone who would see the T shirt, and so could well scrape through in my policy. I am not sure though.

As for being "in your face", that is not what I would use to determine my policy on T Shirts, I would use the criteria I described earlier, with particular regard to being offensive ABOUT another person. So, "I am gay and I am proud" may be in your face, it is not insulting another person, and so is allowed. "Straight people suck" however would be both "in your face" and insulting to others and so would not be allowed in my school.

Coach Brown said...


The "Bush is a terrorist" shirt was from found acceptable under the Tinker case, and I think it was a Federal District Court in Indiana? It was considered political expression.

Don't yell at me about it, I'm just the messenger.

Darren said...

Yes, it was found acceptable--and it's not a positive statement.

Let's be honest here. We don't allow "homosexuality is a sin" shirts because they're not politically correct. It's viewpoint discrimination, pure and simple. Whether or not you agree with the sentiment of the shirt, it's hard to deny the discrimination.

Donalbain said...

I am being honest, and I dislike your implication that I and others are not.
I am against "homosexuality is a sin" T Shirts in schools for the reasons stated above: It is an insulting message aimed against other people who would read it. Political correctness is a bullshit phrase that people seem to throw out when they are not allowed to insult others.

The fact that I think homosexuality is NOT a sin is a completely seperate issue. I wouldnt allow a "Christians are wrong" T Shirt, even though I happen to agree with the general sentiment..

Darren said...

I wouldn't allow the shirt this girl wore, even though I agree with the sentiment.

And I disagree with you about the political correctness--people who oppose the term often (not saying this applies to you personally) do so because it calls them on their fascist desire to control what others say/do. But I guess we'll just talk past each other on that one.

So given everything in the comments above, how do we craft a *reasonable* standard for appropriate student attire?

Darren said...

Skinhead Pride = yes?
Slaveholders are my kinda people = yes?

I don't see how your policy is practical in the real world. It's consistent, yes, but it leads to the very same problems I'm trying to avoid. Besides, we've already established that your policy would not pass legal muster in many jurisdictions.

I'm writing this post from a practical standpoint--what *reasonable* restrictions can we place on students' attire at school, restrictions exceedingly likely to pass legal muster.

Clix said...

donalbain - then you would not object to a shirt that says "Heterosexuality is God's Plan"?

Donalbain said...

I would say that such a T Shirt was stupid, but not against the rules.

Anonymous said...

The gay pride t shirt is a symbol which can also be characterized as a logo. It's akin to wearing, say, a t-shirt which has a cross on it, or a logo of a group.

The ACLU has ABSOLUTELY brought multiple cases where it has fought for student's rights to wear religiously-themed stuff (or other stuff which is characterized rightly or wrongly as right wing) at school. See

A "Homosexuality is a sin" t shirt is obviously legal under the First Amendment, just like a "Jesus is a false Messiah" t shirt. Under current case law, though, a school could probably ban both of them as overly disruptive.