I graduated from a high school that was derisively called (on account of its inland location, its bleak suburban culture, and the town's still-active rodeo) "Cowpie High." Having moved there midway through high school from the New York City suburbs, I found it to be a terribly conservative, sifling place. Which makes it interesting that Poway High is now the center of two gay rights cases.
The case that MIGHT have legal implications for schools outside of "Cowpie" itself is Harper v. Poway Unified School District.
The dispute erupted after April 21 , when some students at the school marked a "Day of Silence" in support of the rights of gays and lesbians.
Chase, who goes by his middle name, went to school that day wearing masking tape on the T-shirt with the words "I Will Not Accept What God Has Condemned" on the front and "Homosexuality Is Shameful, Romans 1:27" on the back.
The next day, he changed the wording on the front slightly to "Be Ashamed, Our School Embraced What God Condemned."
A teacher told him to take off the shirt because it was in violation of the school's dress code. Chase refused, and was sent to the school office, where he spent the rest of the day.
Chase said a vice principal told him to "leave his faith in the car" when he comes to school. The vice principal denies making that statement.
School officials said they had to pull Chase out of class because the language on his shirt was "offensive" and they were worried about violence in light of skirmishes between students during the Day of Silence the year before.
An appeal on the case was heard early this week in the 9th Circuit Court. Although the school district's lawyer didn't argue the case very well, he appeared to be arguing that, because there had been prior anti-gay violence tied to tolerance events, the school had reason to believe the shirt would create a dangerous learning environment.
What makes the case slightly more interesting, however, is that two gay students just won a lawsuit against the district because it failed to offer them a safe learning environment.
A San Diego Superior Court jury found yesterday that two former Poway High School students were harassed by their classmates because they are homosexual and that the school district failed to address the situation immediately and appropriately.
After deliberating about a week, the jury determined that the harassment effectively deprived Joseph Ramelli and Megan Donovan of the same access to the educational opportunities and benefits that other students enjoy.
While I doubt this lawsuit can directly impact the 9th Circuit appeal, it certainly does illustrate that Poway High has a compelling interest in providing a tolerant environment for gay students at the school.
I have no idea whether these two cases will have any impact outside of Poway (although if they succeed in making Poway itself a little less bleak--for everyone--all the better). Hell, I don't even know how the 9th Circuit will rule. But the two cases do seem to provide a interesting confluence of events that might provide a legal precedent for placing limitations on speech to provide a safe learning environment for gay students. Anyway, I'd love to hear what the lawyers in the crowd have to say...