After Lambda Legal requested a preliminary injunction to prevent DeSoto County School District from interfering with students’ participation in GLSEN’s Day of Silence this year, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that because the school district promised it would not interfere with Amber and other students rights to participate in the annual anti-bullying observance in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students on April 19, 2013, an injunction was not necessary.
The Court found “that plaintiff has established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of her First Amendment claims,” yet stopped short of ordering DeSoto County School District to allow students to participate in the annual anti-bullying observance based on assurances from school officials “that plaintiff may engage in literally all the conduct” associated with participation in GLSEN’s Day of Silence.
Lambda Legal has sought clarification that school officials would ensure that teachers and other school personnel would follow the order from the Court because last year staff were told to notify the administration of any student suspected of taking part in GLSEN’s Day of Silence in order “to be dealt with” based on “an absolute policy against protesting.” Unfortunately, the school district’s counsel Wednesday responded that they would not provide Amber with this simple assurance.
“We’re glad that the school has changed its position and represented to the Court that Amber and other students will be able to participate in National Day of Silence this year,” said Beth Littrell, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney. “Amber was forced to literally make a federal case out of the situation in order to ensure that her rights were not trampled again this year. We’re proud of Amber for standing up for herself and for her classmates.”
“This is an important first step, but a student’s First Amendment rights are not restricted to one day a year. The case will continue to make sure that it is not the policy or practice of the DeSoto County School District to ever deny its students’ constitutional rights,” adds Littrell.
Last April, Amber Hatcher made plans to observe Day of Silence, a student-led day of action sponsored by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) in which thousands of students across the country remain silent to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. She asked for permission from her principal, Mrs. Shannon Fusco, nearly a month before the event and provided information from GLSEN and Lambda Legal that explained the observance and students’ legal right to participate. When Principal Fusco threatened Amber with “ramifications” if she participated, Amber appealed directly to DeSoto County School Superintendent Adrian Cline on April 10, 12 and 13. Superintendent Cline refused to meet with her but directed the principal to tell Amber that her request was “disapproved” because allowing students to observe GLSEN’s Day of Silence was not allowed. Principal Fusco repeatedly told Amber that she could not participate and threatened that there “would be consequences” if she did, even calling her parents and suggesting that they keep her home from school.
On April 19, 2012, Lambda Legal sent a letter to Principal Fusco and Superintendant Cline outlining the legal precedent supporting Amber’s right to observe GLSEN’s Day of Silence and putting them on notice that interference with students’ rights could be grounds for a lawsuit. The letter was ignored. Instead, the Principal sent an email to all teachers telling them to send anyone that appeared to be participating in the event to the office. When Amber arrived at school wearing a red t-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh” and communicating by dry erase board with peers and teachers, she was called to the dean’s office and suspended from school for the day.
In the lawsuit, Lambda Legal argued that the Desoto County Board of Education violated the First Amendment and well settled legal precedent supporting students’ free speech.
Beth Littrell, Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office is handling the case for Lambda Legal. She is joined by Lambda Legal co-counsel, Nancy J. Faggianelli, of Carlton Fields in Tampa, Florida.
The case is Hatcher v. Desoto County Board of Education, et al.
For more information on the case, click here.
For more information about GLSEN’s Day of Silence click here.