Battle on Gay Pride Shirts Leads to Suit Against School
By TAMAR LEWIN
New York Times
November 24, 2004
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit yesterday
against a Missouri high school that twice admonished a gay
student for wearing T-shirts bearing gay pride messages.
The suit charges that the school violated the youth's
constitutional right to free expression.
By the account of the civil liberties union, the student,
Brad Mathewson, a 16-year-old junior, was sent to the
principal's office at Webb City High School on Oct. 20 for
wearing a T-shirt that he said came from the Gay-Straight
Alliance at a school he previously attended, in
Fayetteville, Ark. The shirt bore a pink triangle and the
words "Make a Difference!"
Mr. Mathewson, the A.C.L.U. said, was told to turn the
shirt inside out or go home and change. Instead he traded
shirts with a friend, who wore the gay pride shirt the rest
of the day without incident.
A week later, Mr. Mathewson was again admonished for
wearing a gay pride T-shirt, this one featuring a rainbow
and the inscription "I'm gay and I'm proud." Told once more
to turn the shirt instead out or leave, he chose to go home
and was eventually ordered not to return to school wearing
clothing supporting gay rights.
School officials said yesterday that they could not comment
on the situation, or confirm or deny the A.C.L.U. account.
"At this point, with the legal situation, there's just
nothing we're going to say," said Stephen P. Gollhofer, the
Mr. Mathewson began attending the school, outside Joplin,
in September. In a statement issued by the civil liberties
union, he said: "The school lets other students wear
antigay T-shirts, and I understand that they have a right
to do that. I just want the same right. I think tolerating
each other's differences is a key part in teaching students
how to become good citizens."
Since the confrontations involving Mr. Mathewson, school
officials have asked students to remove antigay stickers
and T-shirts, local news accounts said.
Mr. Mathewson and his mother, Marion, held a news
conference yesterday announcing the lawsuit. In a telephone
interview, Ms. Mathewson said: "All he wants is to wear his
T-shirts. He's a typical teenager, so he's angry that
they're trying to tell him what he can and can't do. We had
a meeting at the school to talk about it, but we didn't get
anywhere with them. They talked, I listened, and I got more
and more mad. At the end I just took him home with me."
Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of
Kansas and Western Missouri, wrote to the school on Oct.
28, citing a 1969 ruling by the Supreme Court that students
have a constitutional right to free speech except where
school officials can demonstrate that it would "materially
and substantially interfere with the requirements of
appropriate discipline in the operation of the school."
Such an exception does not apply in Mr. Mathewson's case,
the letter said, since he had previously worn the
Gay-Straight Alliance T-shirt to school several times
without causing any disruption.
The A.C.L.U. said the school had not responded to the
letter. Its lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City,
Mo., seeks an injunction that would bar the school from
censoring Mr. Mathewson's speech.