ACLU warned school that banning t-shirt violated student’s free speech rights

Portsmouth, VA – Following a warning letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, school officials at a Portsmouth high school will allow a student to wear her lesbian pride t-shirt to school.
Last December, school officials at I.C. Norcom High School told 17-year-old senior Bethany Laccone that she would be suspended if she again wore to school her t-shirt bearing an image of two overlapping female gender symbols. The ACLU sent a letter to school officials asserting Bethany’s Fist Amendment right to wear the t-shirt and seeking a reversal of the decision.
“School officials often make the subject of student free speech more difficult than it is,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “It’s really a fairly simple lesson to learn: students have the right to express themselves in school, unless in doing so they disrupt the educational process. Bethany’s quiet message regarding gay rights did not affect the educational process at all, except that one teacher who was offended by the message made a big fuss over it.”
“We are pleased that after we warned them of the constitutional violation, school officials did their homework and quickly retracted the threat of a suspension,” added Willis.
Laccone reported to ACLU that on December 10 she was pulled out of class by a teacher who said she shouldn’t be wearing the shirt at school and then sent her to the assistant principal’s office. The assistant principal and the teacher told Laccone that the shirt violated a section of the school dress code that bans “bawdy, salacious or sexually suggestive messages.” In a meeting with Laccone’s father, the assistant principal said that the teacher was so upset by the t-shirt that it “interfered with her ability to teach.”
“When my teacher told me she wanted me to turn my shirt inside-out or cover it up, I was confused, because I’ve worn that shirt to school several times before and nobody ever said a word about it,” said Bethany, who attends a different school full-time but goes to I. C. Norcom every morning for a hotel management class. “I wear that shirt because I want people to know that I’m proud of being a lesbian and comfortable with who I am. And I have the same Constitutional right to free speech as any other student.”
The ACLU of Virginia and the national ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project worked together in handling Laccone’s complaint.

Contact: Kent Willis (office) 804/644-8022

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