Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Brody's Notes... Colorado High School Reverses Ban Against Pro-Gay T-Shirt Worn By High School Senior

Kate Cohn  Photo Courtesy of Colorado ACLU Denver
By Brody Levesque (Washington DC) NOV 17 | A Colorado high school student will be allowed to wear a t-shirt with a pro-gay marriage message after a two week ban by the school's principal and school district administrators.
Falcon High Senior Kate Cohn,17, had worn the shirt November 2nd, Election Day, to classes at the suburban Colorado Springs area school to make a political statement in support of the right of gays and lesbians to marry along with friends and family members who are LGBT. Assistant Principal Susan Thomas who viewed the shirt referred Cohen to school principal, Mark Carara, who told her the shirt was offensive and she needed to remove it.
In a phone call with Cohen's mother, Barbara, he said that the shirt violated the school's dress code banning apparel potentially disruptive to the academic environment. Carara also indicated to Mrs. Cohen that his opinion was that the t-shirt was comparable to messages on similar clothing promoting drug or alcohol use. Mrs. Cohen brought another shirt to the school so that her daughter could change.
Following protests by students along with support from some faculty and community members, Falcon School District Superintendent Dr. Bradley Schoeppey, and the principal defended their decision. It was reported however, that a few days later, school officials had apparently allowed a group of students to wear anti-abortion t-shirts, one of which read: "Give peace a chance — at least a nine-month cease-fire," without comment or intervention.
On Monday, November 15th, Rebecca Wallace, a Denver based attorney for the Colorado ACLU sent Dr. Shoeppey and Principal Carara a letter warning them that the ban was a violation of Cohen's constitutional rights. The ACLU entered into the fray after Kate Cohen had spoken to a local Colorado Springs television station, KRDO-TV AB13 News, which, according to Wallace, ACLU staffers had seen the broadcast and contacted Cohn.
Wallace demanded that the ban be rescinded by Friday, November 19th or the ACLU would consider the next appropriate legal measures to ensure compliance of Cohen's constitutionally mandated civil liberties.
"It was censorship of the content of speech," Wallace said. "It's unfortunate it took a letter from the ACLU to teach District 49 about basic constitutional rights, but we applaud the school's prompt correction of its violation."
Wallace noted that since the 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District,  the courts have held that students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates." It was clear, Wallace said, that the school didn't like the content of Kate's speech.
The Denver Post had reported Kate's T-shirt hadn't caused much of an academic disturbance among the 1,300 students at the high school, but the ban did. It prompted students to affix sticky notes over their hearts stating: "I support Kate Cohn," or "I do not support gay marriage, but I support Kate Cohn."
In announcing the district's decision to reverse the ban, school district spokeswoman Stephanie Meredith said, "It was determined today the student is entitled to wear it.
According to the Post Kate said she asked her principal why he had changed his mind. He told her it was "because lawyers got involved," and that was all he would discuss with her.
Pride In Utah director Eric Ethington interviewed Cohen last night on Facebook and asked her how she felt about the ordeal. 
[ via LGBTQNation ]
Ethington: Did you expect the administration would react the way they did when they saw your shirt?
Cohn: I expected it only because there is such a homophobic atmosphere in Colorado Springs.
Ethington: What made you want to contact the ACLU?
Cohn: The ACLU contacted me actually because they saw my story and I had wanted to but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. My rights were undermined and The ACLU is all about changing that.
Ethington: What has it been like at school since this started? What feedback (positive/negative) have you gotten?
Cohn: For the first week or so I got only positive feedback and full support from students (I got ignored by all administration who usually love me) starting last week i got some negative feedback such as “you took this all too far” and “Gay people don’t like when people do this” and today in the hall someone walked past and yelled at me “I hate gay people” which was all expected but a little upsetting none-the-less.
Ethington: How do you feel about the school giving in to the ACLU?
Cohn: I am so happy that the ACLU was able to show the school their wrong doings and I along with other students have the right to express ourselves.
Ethington: Is this the last we’ll hear of you? Or do you plan to continue your activist work?
Cohn: I will always continue my activist work everywhere and anywhere I am needed. Though it is doubtful that anything will come up within the school for the rest of this year (as I am a senior and will be graduating soon) but I will not stop here in acheiving the rights of everyone. SO yes, you will probably hear more from me :)
Ethington: Anything else you want mentioned?
Cohn: I want to thank everyone across the nation (and even the world) for supporting me through this. It is truly a battle that has been and will be fought for years to come, but in the end it will all be worth our peaceful efforts.