By Amanda Goad, Staff Attorney, ACLU LGBT Project
Chris Sigler is a senior at Sequoyah High School in Madisonville, Tennessee. It’s a tradition among Sequoyah students to get friends’ signatures on a keepsake T-shirt, so in past years Chris has done that on a shirt labeled "California" and one with the name of his favorite band. This year, Chris decided to make a shirt that would send a message about an issue that’s important to him: the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Sequoyah.
Chris is not gay himself, but he has friends who are. Most of them have suffered bullying at Sequoyah, and some of them have considered suicide. Chris himself regularly gets called things like "fag," "queer," and "pussy" by other students just for his support of his gay friends. So it’s important to him that all students at the school have a safe place to go to talk about bullying and how to fight homophobia. The U.S. Department of Education agrees with Chris that GSAs, and other student-initiated clubs bringing together gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and straight youth, are a great way to combat bullying and help all students feel safe and welcome at school. And the federal Equal Access Act protects students’ right to form GSAs at public schools like Chris’s.
The Sequoyah High School GSA should have been a done deal by now…if it weren’t for the principal, Maurice Moser. When they circulated a petition to show support for the GSA and got over 150 signatures, students say Moser banned petitions about the GSA at the school. Then, when Chris and two other students put together an application for school recognition of the GSA, Moser wouldn’t even take it from them because they hadn’t named a faculty sponsor. At least three teachers have expressed interest in sponsoring the GSA but then changed their minds after meeting with Moser about it. We’ve read that Moser has admitted that in the past, when other clubs needed sponsors, he helped them out – but this time he refused to help.
Chris wrote "Gay Straight Alliance: We’ve Got Your Back" on a T-shirt and wore it to school last Tuesday and Friday. Dozens of classmates signed. But Friday morning, Moser told Chris that he could choose either to turn his shirt inside out, change shirts, or get suspended. Chris ignored that, because he knew his shirt was fine under the Sequoyah dress code. Later, Moser charged into Chris’s economics class, interrupted the students in the middle of taking a test, and ordered everyone except Chris to leave. What happened next is a matter for the criminal justice system. But putting aside the assault and battery allegations against Moser, it’s unconstitutional and totally inappropriate for a high school student to be punished for speaking his mind peacefully through the words on a T-shirt. The Supreme Court says that students can express whatever ideas they want through their clothing as long as they don’t cause a "substantial disruption," and it sounds like the only person causing a substantial disruption at Sequoyah last week was Moser.
The ACLU of Tennessee and the ACLU’s LGBT Project wrote a letter to the Monroe County Director of Schools, Moser’s boss, on Tuesday. We asked the school district to confirm that it will, going forward, honor students’ constitutional rights to free speech and free expression. If we have to, we are prepared to go to court to protect Sequoyah students’ First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee is asking concerned members of the public to contact the school district seeking a promise that any teacher who steps up to sponsor the GSA won’t face retaliation. We look forward to hearing that a courageous teacher has done so, which under Moser’s own rules should allow recognition of the GSA, so that Chris and his classmates can get together over lunch to talk about LGBT issues with the school’s blessing.