Lambda Legal Sues School for Violating Student Free Speech Rights

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February 26, 2013
Lambda Legal client Amber Hatcher

Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit today against a Florida high school on behalf of a lesbian student who was punished for participating in an annual anti-bullying observance.

Amber Hatcher, 16, made plans to observe GLSEN’s National Day of Silence last April at DeSoto County High School in Arcadia, Fla. As part of the student-led day of action, thousands of students across the country remain silent to call attention to the damaging effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.

Sign our pledge and support Amber’s right to take a stand against bullying and harassment!

Amber says:

There are many LGBT kids in my school who have been bullied and harassed and who feel unsafe. I just wanted to stand up for all the kids in my school, gay or straight, who don't feel like they have a voice to stand up for themselves. I wish my school would help me create an accepting environment for LGBT kids, not single me out for punishment.

Amber asked for permission from Principal Shannon Fusco nearly a month before the event and provided information from GLSEN and Lambda Legal that explained the Day of Silence and students’ legal right to participate.

When Fusco threatened her with "ramifications" if she participated, Amber appealed directly to DeSoto County School Superintendent Adrian Cline. He refused to meet with her but directed the principal to tell Amber that her request was "disapproved" because allowing students to observe Day of Silence was not allowed. Fusco repeatedly told Amber that she could not participate and threatened that there "would be consequences" if she did, even calling her parents and suggesting that they keep her home from school. 

Lambda Legal sent a letter to Fusco and Cline outlining the legal precedent supporting Amber’s right to observe the Day of Silence, and putting them on notice that interference with students' rights could be grounds for a lawsuit. The letter was ignored.

Instead, the principal sent an email to all teachers telling them to send anyone who appeared to be participating in the event to the office. Amber arrived at school wearing a red T-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh” and communicated by dry-erase board with peers and teachers. She was called to the dean's office and suspended from school for the day. 

Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Beth Littrell says:

Amber was respectfully and peacefully calling attention to a real problem: LGBT students at DeSoto County High School feel unwelcome and unsafe. The school should be working to help support LGBT students rather than punishing students who are standing up against bullying. By threatening, censoring and punishing Amber for her efforts to simply raise awareness, school officials disregarded her rights as well as the Constitution.

Every year, we get reports from students across the country who are told they cannot participate in Day of Silence. Fortunately, most schools respond to our letters by respecting students’ rights to participate. For example, we sent a letter on behalf of an openly gay student in Dallas, and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District corrected its mistake and agreed to allow students to participate this year. It is too bad that we had to proceed to litigation with DeSoto County School District. 

In the papers filed in court today, Lambda Legal argues that the DeSoto County Board of Education violated the First Amendment and well-settled legal precedent supporting students' free speech. Based on what happened last year and because she was told again that she could not participate this year, Lambda Legal has asked the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the school from further interference with Amber's—and other students'—First Amendment rights and requiring the school to allow her to participate in this year's Day of Silence.

Sign our pledge and support Amber’s right to take a stand against bullying and harassment!

More information on the case, including legal documents, here.

To find out more about students’ right to free speech, visit Lambda Legal’s Know Your Rights: Youth.