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No Straight Talk Allowed

By Wendy Kaminer

        Last year, high school senior Heidi Zamecnik sued her school for prohibiting her from wearing a t-shirt expressing her preference for heterosexuality.  “BE HAPPY, NOT GAY,” her shirt read.  According to the complaint in her case (filed by the Alliance Defense Fund,) the Dean of Students pulled her out of the lunchroom, complained that the message on her shirt was offensive, and prohibited her from wearing it in school.  A female guidance counselor blacked out the words “NOT GAY,” and Heidi returned to classes wearing a t-shirt that read “BE HAPPY.”

        But it’s hard to be happy when your fundamental rights are violated.  The suppression of Heidi’s pro-heterosexuality message must have been particularly galling since it followed an official Day of Silence, devoted to expressing pro-gay sentiments and support for gay and lesbian students.  Heidi whose opposition to the “homosexual lifestyle” is based on her religious beliefs, was offended by the messages conveyed by other students (and the school) on the Day of Silence, but, according to her complaint, “understood that students have a right to share their viewpoints on this and other issues.” 

        You might expect a federal court to agree with this simple proposition, but the court in Heidi’s case ruled instead that she had no such right to share her views.  Her school had a “legitimate interest in protecting gay students . .. from being harmed, both physically and psychologically,” the Court held.  The school also had a “legitimate pedagogical interest” in promoting “tolerance and respect for differences among students,” although apparently this interest did not require it to tolerate or respect Heidi’s different views.  Indeed, by suppressing Heidi’s speech, the school made clear that it was interested in promoting only one homogenous point of view, not many different ones.

        The illogic that justifies censorship in the name of tolerance is familiar enough: it’s the underlying illogic of PC.
   Equally familiar is the patronizing assertion that gay and lesbian students are apt to be psychologically harmed by the mere sight of t-shirts with messages like “BE HAPPY, NOT GAY.”  I hope that at least some students have the confidence and self-respect to be offended by assumptions about their psychological fragility and unfitness for the rough and tumble of a free society.

        Heidi Zamecnik has graduated, but her claims are being pursued by Alexander Nuxoll, a sophomore at her former school.  The Alliance Defense Fund recently won an expedited appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, based on Alexander’s desire to wear a t-shirt proclaiming his views on homosexuality in time for the Day of Silence in April 2008.  Meanwhile, a similar case is still pending in the 9th Circuit: In 2006, in a depressingly familiar example of liberal anti-libertarianism, the 9th circuit held that students may be barred from wearing t-shirts with anti-gay messages in schools that encourage students to wear shirts with pro-gay messages.  (The Supreme Court vacated that decision on procedural grounds, so there is still no definitive ruling on the merits.)

        Expect to see more cases like this.  Nationwide, schools are participating in the Day of Silence to support gay and lesbian students, and the Alliance Defense Fund is countering with a Day of Truth to promote Christian opposition to “the homosexual agenda in schools.” Additional test cases are bound to arise, given the penchant of school administrators to censor viewpoints they find offensive.  ADF seems eager to bring one of these cases before the Supreme Court, and I hope it succeeds.  The Court is no friend to student speech rights, but given its current composition, I bet that a majority would sympathize with students seeking the right to air their religious beliefs about sexual orientation – a right that any self-respecting civil libertarian should defend.


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