Missouri’s Rutherford County School Board is refusing to allow an LGBT-supportive poster back on the wall at a local school. Administrators recently required a teacher to take the poster down after a parent complained.
The poster, created by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, reads: “This is a safe and inclusive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their allies. All students deserve a safe and welcoming school environment.” It also includes some statistics about LGBT youth, noting, for instance, that 9 out of 10 LGBT youth face harassment at school based on their sexual orientation, and that many LGBT youth do not feel safe at school. You can view the poster here.
Rutherford school officials and their representatives have offered various, shifting excuses for the anti-LGBT censorship, all of them terribly weak.
- According to a demand letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, which urged the district to allow the poster, a school attorney claimed that the poster was inappropriately sexual because it contains the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” There’s nothing sexual or inappropriate, however, about merely recognizing the existence of LGBT students or advocating for their inclusion in a safe school environment. As the ACLU letter explains, moreover, federal courts have rejected similar excuses for school censorship of LGBT-inclusive messages in other cases.
- The ACLU letter also indicates that the school district’s attorney viewed the poster as violating a restriction on political messages in the classroom. But even assuming the school can constitutionally restrict political messages, that wouldn’t justify the censorship of this poster. As the ACLU letter notes, the poster does not take a stance on a political candidate or even on a political issue like LGBT legal equality; it merely affirms the existence of a safe learning space for all students in the classroom.
- According to a report in The Tennessean, the school district’s attorney believes that the poster inappropriately singled out a group for special treatment. Did he not read the poster? It says that “[a]ll students deserve a safe and welcoming school environment” (emphasis mine). True, the poster also refers specifically to the safety of LGBT students and their allies. But how does this grant them special treatment? The poster merely tells an often neglected, mistreated and ostracized group of young people that they are safe in a particular space; it does not exclude or demean or insult anyone, and it does not deny any right or privilege to any student. The tired old “special rights” excuse is just that: an excuse.
- According to another local report, administrators asked the teacher to remove the sign “in an attempt to stay neutral.” Neutral on what? The safety of LGBT students? That’s a scary thought. School administrators create serious risks for students (and for themselves in court!) if they claim to be “neutral” on the issue of any student’s safety. Plus, requiring the removal of this poster was not a “neutral” act: It communicated to LGBT students and their allies that administrators (and some community members) do not take their safety or well-being seriously.
Thankfully, there are LGBT-supportive voices in the district determined to convey a more inclusive message to the student body, and the school even has a gay-straight alliance. The school board needs to listen to these voices, drop the excuses and stand up for all students, including LGBT students. If it doesn’t, it may very well face (and lose) a lawsuit from the ACLU.