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ACLU Supports Christian Group in T-Shirt Case
by Amy Wooten

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Arguing that free speech rights should not be suppressed, the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) of Illinois filed a brief supporting a conservative Christian group appealing a federal judge's ruling that bars a Naperville student form wearing an anti-gay T-shirt to school.

ACLU of Illinois recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief that argues that freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination need to be balanced in public high schools. The organization believes that suppressing speech causes too much harm. More often than not, it is LGBT students whose free speech is suppressed, according to the ACLU.

The brief states that the court must fully protect both freedoms.

In 2006, Suburban Indian Prairie School District 204 prevented two high school students from wearing a T-shirt with read, 'Be happy, not gay' the day after national 'Day of Silence,' which many students took part in. One student has since graduated, but another student, Alexander Nuxoll, who remains at the school, wishes to wear the T-shirt. The ACLU says that that the Naperville's high school's policy barring students from wearing such shirts is too broad and infringes on free speech rights.

The notoriously anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund has been trying to suspend the school's policy. The case is currently on appeal.

The ACLU argues that freedom of speech, regardless of the viewpoint, is important. For example, freedom of speech protects students' rights to self-identify as gay in public schools.

This doesn't mean that the safety of LGBT students is taking a back seat, ACLU told Windy City Times. The safety of gay students is still a priority, and schools need to be proactive in ensuring that harassment and discrimination based on protected status does not occur, according to the organization.

ACLU of Illinois said that since LGBT students are typically the victims of speech prohibition in public schools, ensuring free speech for everyone is key.

John Knight, director of ACLU of Illinois' Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project, said there are a number of reasons why protecting speech rights is important.

'In our experience, it's more often than not [ that ] it's the lesbian or gay kids whose speech is being shut down,' Knight said. 'The First Amendment has been very helpful to gay kids in terms of their ability to come out in school, … in their ability to go to the prom with their chosen same-sex partner. It's plainly important not only for non-gay kids, but gay kids as well, to have robust protection of speech.'

Schools have tried to suppress the free speech of LGBT and LGBT-supportive students. Various schools have banned students from wearing pro-gay shirts to school. Recently, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit because of a Florida high school's policy that prohibits students from wearing rainbow-themed clothing or bringing items with rainbows on them on the basis that such expression would be 'disruptive.'

'What we've written doesn't ignore the reality of the kind of harm that can occur with LGBT kids because of harassment, but simply says that you got to get to the point where you can reasonably predict that it's going to be harassment before you shut down the speech,' Knight said. 'It lays out a way to balance these important rights—the right to free speech and the right to equal access to education, which means that you've got to have a safe environment in which you can go to school.'

The ACLU of Illinois says there are a number of steps a school should take to promote tolerance, such as anti-harassment, diversity and anti-discrimination policies and training.

'Those are the first things that should be done before you start suppressing speech,' Knight said, calling suppression the 'easy way out.'

'There needs to be an open exchange about ideas,' Knight added. 'When we start shutting down speech about these kinds of issues, we get into a great deal of trouble when it comes to the educational environment in general.'

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