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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
April 15, 2005

School backs down, allows 'Gay Marriage' T-shirts

Dublin, Ohio--After dozens of students protested a decision to bar Tshirts reading �I Support Gay Marriage,� their high school in this Columbus suburb has reversed itself and allowed them.

The shirts were worn by about 20 Jerome High School students on March 23, according to organizer Zach Hust, a sophomore.

The day before, the principal had demanded that a fellow student, Miles Barerra, remove his shirt with a similar message.

Hust said he didn�t think any of the students who wore the shirts are gay, and they are not part of an organized student group.

�It�s just something we felt strongly about,� said Hust. �The shirts are no different than ones that say �Jesus is My Homeboy� or �George W. Bush for President.� �

Hust said the students made the shirts from white undershirts with felt-tip pens. His had a large purple heart and said �I Support Gay Marriage� on the front, and two male figures holding hands above the word �Love� on the back.

Principal Steve Best called all the students to the office and told them they had to take the shirts off or leave school for the day. One girl went home, and the others changed their shirts at school.

�We had two days left until spring break,� said Hust. �We didn�t want the shirts to become a distraction, and if we went home, we wouldn�t be learning anything.�

The next day, the shirts appeared again, joined by another 25 students wearing shirts saying �I Support Free Speech� and �I Support the First Amendment.�

The First Amendment messages were not challenged by Best.

Though none of the students were disciplined for wearing the gay marriage shirts, Best told them they were violating the school�s dress code by wearing them.

Hust said Best was concerned that those wearing the shirts would be victimized by gaybashers.

�They should punish the gaybashers, not us,� said Hust.

Best refused to comment for this report, referring questions to Dublin City Schools spokesperson Doug Baker.

�It�s a day-by-day, shirt-by-shirt judgement call the principal makes as to whether a Tshirt message is disruptive to the educational process or is not,� said Baker. �It�s pretty simple, really.�

�We are a learning organization,� said Baker, �If anything disrupts that, it won�t be permitted. That�s the guideline for Tshirts or anything else.�

The school�s dress code forbids clothing which advertises or promotes activities against school regulations, is obscene or suggestive of obscenities or violence, or is drug related.

The district�s policy prohibits clothes that �materially interfere with school work, create disorder, or disrupt the educational program.�

That judgment is left to the principal.

Baker said gay pride and First Amendment shirts have been worn by students in the past �without incident.�

Baker said Barerra�s shirt �was reported as �disruptive� on that particular day� which was the reason he was asked to take it off. He did not elaborate as to what that meant.

Hust contacted the ACLU of Ohio, which sent a letter to the system�s superintendent, Linda Fenner.

�The ACLU of Ohio is deeply troubled by the previous actions by school officials resulting in students removing Tshirts because of the viewpoints expressed,� wrote ACLU legal director Jeff Gamso. �It is our opinion that even the administration�s demands to remove the shirts constitutes an unconstitutional infringement on those students� free speech rights.�

Gamso cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines School District, which states that students do not �shed their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.�

The Des Moines students were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war.

Gamso wrote that the Tshirts were �exactly the type of silent, unobtrusive political expression at issue in Tinker.�

Baker denied that Gamso�s letter had anything to do with the school�s change of interpretation of its dress code policy.

�The ACLU letter had nothing to do with how with how we handled this situation. I can say that for certain,� said Baker.

However, the school has changed its position.

�If the shirt in question were to be worn again, Principal Best indicated it would be permitted as long as it did not interrupt the educational process,� said Baker.

 

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