California school lets students wear anti-LGBT stickers

The lines around free speech and harassment are blurry, but finding them is offering an educational opportunity to one California community.

Noah Berger/AP/File
Rainbow flags fly in front of San Francisco City Hall in June 2013, shortly after the US Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California.

A thorny scene playing out in southern California has one small community scrambling to find the elusive line between free speech and harassment.

The big question is whether students at Shadow Hills High School in Indio can wear anti-gay stickers that portray a small rainbow inside a circle with a line through it. So far, administrators and lawyers have decided that students have as much right to wear anti-gay stickers on their school ID badges as they do to wear stickers supporting gay rights, as long as they don’t harass students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).

“If at any point students are interrupting class time to express their beliefs, they are to be sent to the discipline office with a referral for disruption,” said an email statement of the anti-gay students, sent to staff Wednesday by school administrators, according to a report from the Desert Sun.

“We all have a right to freedom of speech, but students also have a right to be educated without fear. This has always been our policy, and we will continue to enforce it," the e-mail said.

The US Supreme Court in 1969 ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Whether the stickers are harassment or free expression, some educators consider the dilemma facing its community in deciding to be a perfect opportunity for education, with many calling for the school to offer sensitivity training to students.

"It's not just dealing with the five or six kids. It's trying to change the culture to help the students feel emboldened to say to their classmates 'Hey, that's not OK. That's not appropriate,' " David Parsons, a Spanish and advanced placement (AP) literature teacher at Shadow Hills told the Sun.

The stickers started showing up a couple of weeks ago on students’ ID badges and on social media, and even on the classroom window of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance coordinator, reports the Sun. This has unnerved some students and staff, who say they feel targeted.

"Yes, there is freedom of speech established by Tinker, but at least in my view, it's a hate crime because a group was targeted," Amy Oberman, an AP US history teacher at Shadow Hills told the Sun.

"I'm Jewish, and if that had been a little swastika on my window, what's the difference?" she asked.

But as long as there is no bullying accompanying the free speech, the anti-gay stickers can stay. Administrators say this is not a decision that they made lightly; they agonized over the case before siding with free speech.

"Sometimes people can be uncomfortable because of an opinion, but that doesn't mean it's bullying," said Laura Fisher, assistant superintendent of personnel services for the Desert Sands Unified School District.  "We truly spent hours discussing this."

Some students that support gay rights are taking the opportunity to show their support for the LGBT cause.

"Shadow Hills High School has been able to come together and try and educate those discriminating,” said Michelle Bachman, a senior at Shadow Hills and vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance. “Instead of having anti-gay stickers in our lanyards, we have made heart stickers with rainbows to display our support and love."

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story used an imprecise term to describe the category of speech under which the stickers fall.]

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