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Gay Student in Trouble over T-Shirts Asserts Right to Free Expression

by Jessica Azulay

After school authorities sent him home for sporting gay pride slogans on his clothes, a Missouri student is demanding that educators respect his Constitutional right to free speech.

Nov. 1, 2004 – With the help of a civil rights organization, a Missouri high school student is standing his ground over his right to free expression. Brad Mathewson, a junior at Webb City High School in Missouri, says while his classmates freely wield anti-gay propaganda, he was twice disciplined for wearing gay pride t-shirts.

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"Even though nobody complained about my t-shirts, my school told me I couldn’t wear them, just because someone might get offended," Mathewson said in a press statement put out by the America Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting him in his fight. "But every day I see students at my school with anti-gay stickers on their notebooks and sometimes on their shirts, and I find that offensive."

Mathewson added, "I understand that they have a right to express what they think, but I have a right to do the same thing."

On October 20, even after he pointed out that his peers are not disciplined for sporting messages supporting a gay marriage ban, Mathewson says he was told to change or turn inside out a shirt emblazoned with a pink triangle and the words "FHS Gay-Straight Alliance" and "Make a Difference!" According to the ACLU, instead of changing, Mathewson switched shirts with a heterosexual friend who was allowed to wear the Gay-Straight Alliance shirt for the rest of the day without incident.

On October 27, Mathewson wore another shirt emblazoned with a rainbow and the phrase "I’m gay and I’m proud." Another one of his friends had on a shirt reading "I love lesbians." Both were told the shirts were inappropriate and were told to change. Mathewson refused and went home instead.

"This school allows its students to freely express their views on gay and lesbian rights -- but only if they’re on the anti-gay side of the issue," said Jolie Justus on behalf of the Kansas-Western Missouri ACLU. "This is a classic case of censorship. Brad Mathewson has the same Constitutional right to political speech and expression that the Supreme Court says all students have."

Contacted on Friday by the Northwest Arkansas Times, Webb City Superintendent Ronald Lankford said he could not comment on the incidents. He did say the district was consulting an attorney about the matter.

On Mathewson’s behalf, the ACLU has sent a letter to the school principals and the district superintendent demanding that school officials allow Mathewson and other students to wear expressive shirts without punishment and reverse any disciplinary action taken so far. In its letter, the ACLU reminds the school that according to law, "students have a right to political speech or expression, including expression of their sexual orientation, unless the administration can demonstrate that the forbidden conduct would ‘materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.’"

"You can’t trample someone’s First Amendment rights just because someone might take offense at what that person has to say," commented Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. "Schools that unlawfully censor students’ views should be given an F in civics."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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