ACLU urges School Board to re-post GLSEN “Safe Space” anti-bullying posters after censorship

The ACLU of Tennessee and the national ACLU yesterday sent a letter to the Rutherford County Board of Education urging that Central Magnet School students and teachers be allowed to reinstate GLSEN’s “Safe Space” posters that the school board had removed from classrooms at the school.  The posters identify classrooms as spaces where all students can feel safe from bullying and harassment, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Members of the Central Magnet School Gay Straight Alliance student organization requested last year that teachers display the posters in classrooms.  The posters, designed by GLSEN, were hung without incident alongside posters from other student groups for the majority of the prior school year.  The GLSEN poster states, “This is a safe and inclusive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their allies.  All students deserve a safe and welcoming school environment.”  A copy of the poster in question can be viewedhere.

“Removal of these posters is a violation of the free speech rights of students and teachers,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN Legal Director.  “Permitting some student groups but not others to display posters amounts to unconstitutional, discriminatory censorship.”

The school board, speaking through its attorney via telephone, claimed that the poster’s content is of an inappropriate sexual nature because it contains the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”  The ACLU letter asserts that this is an “obvious mischaracterization.”  In the same conversation, the school board’s attorney stated that the poster is inappropriately political in nature.  The ACLU letter states that this claim “grossly misconstru[es] the nature of the poster.”

"I believe creating a safe school environment is important for all students.  Anti-gay harassment and bullying hurts everyone, which is why I found the censorship of this poster particularly surprising and frustrating,” said Allen Nichols, Central Magnet School social studies and history teacher.  “While I hung the poster at students’ request, I thought it was important to do so because it shows that my classroom is a safe, supportive environment for every young person I work with."

Many LGBT students in Tennessee do not feel safe at school because of their sexual orientation. 88.0 percent of LGBT students in Tennessee have been verbally harassed and 43 percent have been physically harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN’s “2011 Tennessee State Snapshot.” A hostile school climate can result in absenteeism, lowered educational aspirations and academic achievement, and poorer psychological well-being.

“Removing a GLSEN Safe Space poster that promotes a positive learning environment free from bullying and harassment is alarming given that a majority of LGBT students in Tennessee report feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s Executive Director. “Every student deserves to feel safe in school and our Safe Space posters, a part of GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit, play a vital role in conveying that very message. Students know they have an educator to turn to for support when they see our poster displayed in a school classroom or office.”

“Students have the right to be safe at school, and they have a right to state their opinion about that as well,” said Amanda C. Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project.  “The school board needs to immediately reauthorize display of the poster and to ensure that such censorship will not occur again.”

A copy of the ACLU’s letter to the school board can be found here.

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