Tennessee School District Agrees to Respect Students’ Rights to Free Speech

School officials in Savannah, Tenn., in response to a letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center, have recognized the right of students to express acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, including the right to display slogans and symbols expressing such acceptance.

Following the SPLC’s May 17 letter, an attorney for the Hardin County School District confirmed in writing that “all students within the District may peacefully display non-vulgar expressions in support of LGBT people so long as such displays do not materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school or otherwise collide with the rights of others.”

District officials also said that slogans such as “Gay Pride, Speak Up, Speak Out, Be Proud,” “Lesbian and Proud,” “Gay? Fine by me,” “I Love My Gay Friends,” and others included in SPLC’s letter to the district last month are not vulgar, lewd, or sexually suggestive and thus do not violate school board policy.

“Peaceably displaying non-vulgar slogans in support of LGBT people violates the rights of no one,” said Sam Wolfe, a civil rights lawyer with SPLC’s LGBT Rights Project.

“As explained in our initial letter, if some students complain or are disruptive in response to such expressions, the school has a duty to address the students causing the disruption, but not to censor protected speech,” Wolfe said “We will continue monitoring the district’s practices and take appropriate legal action if necessary.”

Isabella Nuzzo
The district’s statement came in response to the SPLC’s letter to school officials last month on behalf of Hardin County High School student Isabella Nuzzo, who is not gay but desires to express support for her gay friends. Several HCHS students had been told they could not display slogans and symbols supportive of LGBT equality.

“I feel overwhelmed at this success,” Isabella said. “This shows that we can make a positive impact at school and if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere. This victory is for my gay friends at Hardin County High School and for LGBT people throughout Tennessee who deserve an equal and respected place in our communities.”

The letter was prompted after several students at HCHS were told by an assistant principal that they could not display slogans and symbols supportive of LGBT equality, including a T-shirt with a rainbow, because of a dress code prohibiting students from “advertising” or “promoting” sex. The official also attempted, by threatening students with discipline, to terminate a student-organized “Week of Pride” intended to show support for LGBT students.

Students organized the Week of Pride in support of a classmate who was threatened with discipline in April if she did not remove or reverse a T-shirt with the slogan “Lesbian and Proud” she wore as part of the national Day of Silence. The Day of Silence is a national event that raises awareness about the harassment and bullying of LGBT youth.

Statements supportive of LGBT people are protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. This is true even in communities that harbor anti-gay sentiment.

"The Constitution protects the bedrock principle of our democracy that the government, including school officials, may not ban expressions of an opinion they simply dislike,” Wolfe said. “Permitting greater freedom is almost always the better course and can prevent expensive litigation.”

The SPLC is dedicated to defending the rights of students in public schools. The SPLC works to ensure a safe and respectful learning environment for all students – including LGBT students – through educational campaigns and legal action.