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Can a School Prevent Disruption While Protecting Students’ First Amendment Rights?

It all started in April 2011 when Waynesville, Ohio high school student Maverick Couch wore a T-shirt with the words “JESUS IS NOT A HOMOPHOBE” appearing with a rainbow Christian symbol Ichthys, or “sign of the fish”. When he was asked by his principal to remove it, he did.

T%20Shirt%20Rainbow%2027321246-001.jpgIn August 2011, Maverick asked permission to wear the T-shirt again. His request is denied and he is allegedly threatened with suspension if he wears it. Next, Lambda Legal gets involved on Maverick’s behalf. Lambda sends a letter outlining Maverick’s First Amendment rights to school authorities. The letter informs the school that Maverick’s right to wear the T-shirt is constitutionally protected.

The school district responds, saying that the T-shirt is sexual in nature and therefor indecent and inappropriate for school.

Lambda files a lawsuit in federal court against the Wayne Local School District. The lawsuit can be viewed HERE. After clicking on the link, the lawsuit document can be found by scrolling down the page and it is followed by a copy of the school district’s response to Lambda’s letter.

Earlier this year, that lawsuit was resolved in favor of Maverick Couch. Principal Randy Gebhardt and the Wayne Local School District agreed to have a judgment entered against them. That judgment allows Maverick to wear his T-shirt to school any time he wants. It also awarded him $20,000 for damages, attorney’s fees and costs.

The challenge for schools and school districts is that while protecting students’ rights, they must simultaneously prevent disruption at school and to the educational process.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.