After a Jonesborough, Tennessee high school principal suspended Curtis Walsh for participating in a silent demonstration to raise awareness about anti-gay violence, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded today that David Crockett High School apologize to the student and promise not to punish students who take part in such actions in the future.
Walsh, who is a senior at the school and will be graduating on May 19, said he has been a frequent target of anti-gay harassment at the school. The school is part of the Washington County School System.
“I just wanted to do something positive about the harassment I’ve had to deal with every day at this school,” said Walsh. “I’m graduating in a few days, but I want things to be better for future gay students than they were for me. It’s pretty ironic that my principal decided to silence me for taking part in a protest in which I was planning to be silent all day.”
Walsh and other students were called into Principal Henry Marable’s office within minutes of arriving at school on April 18 for participating in National Day of Silence, an annual nationwide student action in which students take a daylong vow of silence to illustrate the silence in which lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people often suffer discrimination and violence.
Walsh was sent home for three days for participating in the silent protest. According to the students, Marable claimed that he was trying to protect them from other students who might react badly to their demonstration.
“I’m really proud of my son for wanting to do something so other students don’t have to suffer the kind of harassment he’s had to endure at school for all these years,” said Zina Owens, Walsh’s mother. “Where was all this concern about harassment when other students were calling Curtis names and threatening him every day? Why should he be punished for something other students might do? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“Schools don’t get to take away students’ right to free speech just because they fear that others might respond badly to that speech,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “The school’s proper response when students react disruptively to constitutionally-protected speech is to punish the students who are disruptive, not to violate the rights of students who are exercising their free speech rights.”
In its letter to Washington County School System officials, the ACLU demands that the school apologize to Walsh and guarantee that the school won’t violate students’ rights in this fashion in the future. A copy was also sent to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, which spearheads National Day of Silence.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in this country face harassment, discrimination, and violence in their schools and communities on a daily basis,” said Christine Sun, staff attorney for the ACLU of Tennessee. “It’s completely unacceptable that a student trying to convey a positive message of human rights for all would face this type of reaction from their school administration.”