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Ohio Students Face Discipline for Gay Rights T-shirts

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By Cooper Fleishman on October 31, 2012

Despite the LGBT harmony you see on the Ohio-set show Glee, Buckeye State small-town life isn’t all rainbows.

Students at the public Celina High School in Mercer County face out-of-school suspensions for refusing to remove T-shirts that read I SUPPORT [RAINBOW]. EXPRESS YOURSELF and STRAIGHT BUT SUPPORTIVE, a student representative, who uses the online handle KyraGrace, told HyperVocal.

We’d contacted KyraGrace — we decided not to name the students we spoke with until at least all disciplinary matters have been sorted — shortly after reading his post on Reddit: “Today, 20 students at our high school got in trouble for promoting gay rights because of the political issue.”

In the post, he explains that on Tuesday, the assistant principal “punished these students and forced them to change because they are advertising ‘political’ messages. Yet this school promotes their pro-life club called the Students for Life. They have their own shirts, which have a fetus and promote pro-life. Not to mention the signs they put up around our town. They refuse to debate with pro-choicers as well. How is that not considered ‘political’?”

Students in the pro-life recruitment organization Students for Life, which meets regularly after school, are allowed to wear their shirts “whenever they want,” KyraGrace claims. But when 20 students showed up wearing hand-drawn messages declaring support for gay marriage, school administrators told them to change clothes. Those who refused were given detentions and threatened with out-of-school suspensions if the shirts made a second appearance.

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Unsurprisingly, Celina is a conservative-leaning high school in red-leaning Mercer County, which sits in the northwest region of the hotly contested midwestern state. Late last week, the high school was host to vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who asked Ohioans to pray for victims of then-Hurricane Sandy.

According to a student who organized the T-shirt protest, Celina High School assistant principal Phil Metz simply told him “to never wear the shirt again.”

The organizer, a sophomore, told us students defied orders and wore the same shirts Wednesday. “One person wore a shirt today and has been in the office for over an hour because she does not want to take it off,” he reported.

He started the campaign after his sister and a friend wore “Twin Day” T-shirts that read LESBIAN 1 and LESBIAN 2. They were asked to remove the shirts. Tuesday’s tees were pledges of support.

“My sister got yelled at and screamed at [by administrators], and she was basically told she was unwanted at the school because she was gay,” he told USNews.com.

Metz and principal Jason Luebke have so far declined our repeated requests to comment. “Most people say [the administrators] probably won’t respond,” says the source. “They’re probably on damage control right now, but I believe it’s too late for that.”

The assistant principal’s defense is that the shirts were political, says KyraGrace. But that argument appears to be a double standard. Students at Celina often wear shirts displaying their political affiliations. (To prove a point, KyraGrace sent me a picture of a student sitting across from him in class, wearing a Romney/Ryan T-shirt.)

Mike Brickner, Ohio ACLU Director of Communications & Public Policy, told us via email that if the allegations are correct, the students have the First Amendment on their side.

Regardless of the viewpoint they are expressing, students do not shed their First Amendment rights when they enter school. This is well-established constitutional law going back more than four decades. The law is not new or ambiguous. What is even more troubling are the reports that some students were able to wear shirts with different political messages, while these students were unable to express their opinion. That is simply unfair and unconstitutional censorship.

It sounds like the school is trying to silence the students who are passively expressing a viewpoint on the basis that individuals who disagree with that message will be upset and disruptive. This is not a valid justification for suppressing free speech.

In May, a student named Maverick Couch sued his school for prohibiting him from wearing a shirt that read JESUS IS NOT A HOMOPHOBE. The court ruled in his favor, and his school was forced to pay court costs and damages.

CHS’s gay rights tees don’t appear to be violating any dress code. The Celina City District bylaws and policies page warns that no clothing should “materially interfere with school work, create disorder, or disrupt the educational program” (emphasis ours), and that “the Board will not interfere with the right of students and their parents to make decisions regarding their appearance, except when their choices interfere with the educational program of the schools.”

Unless the shirts bind the students’ arms and steal their pencils, the ban on pride apparel at Celina sounds more like a political agenda than a safety concern.

And the kids can see right through it, of course. Emailing from school Wednesday, KyraGrace told us, “Students aren’t happy about it. I guess Phil told one student they weren’t welcome because of their sexual preference. But that’s all speculation.”

KyraGrace and other students are lamenting the arbitrary standards of free speech at CHS. Celina high schoolers “are really open about being racist” and will drop racial slurs such as “sand n***er” without fear of reprisal, he says.

He plans to stir up as much buzz has possible to counter what he calls an imposition on the students’ First Amendment rights. “They need to drop this act and facade that they are playing. It’s gone on way too long.”

The protesting students are reaching out to local and national news to try to put “public pressure” on the school. “There is talk of wearing the shirts again in some student protest, but we’d like media backing and outside support beforehand. We feel like if we organize this and implement it, that they could try suspending us or worse,” says KyraGrace.

“I hope we’ll win. I really do,” he added. “I’ll fight until we do, even if it takes my whole being.”

For their part, the Students for Life have kept silent.

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