CHICAGO (CN) – The 7th Circuit upheld an Illinois high-school sophomore’s right to wear a T-shirt with the slogan, “Be Happy, Not Gay,” to express his disapproval of homosexuality.
The court refused to support a school ban at Nequa Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., based on speculation that the slogan would “poison the educational atmosphere” or incite harassment against gay students.
A group of students wore the banned shirt on the day after the “Day of Silence,” sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. The “Day of Silence” encourages students to wear shirts that say “Be Who You Are” and to remain silent throughout the day as a way of drawing attention to homosexual harassment.
A counter-event called the “Day of Truth” takes place the next day, when students who disapprove of homosexuality wear shirts that say, “Day of Truth,” “The Truth Cannot Be Silenced” and “Be Happy, Not Gay.”
The school allowed all slogans except “Be Happy, Not Gay,” which was deemed derogatory. School policy bans “derogatory comments … that refer to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.”
Sophomore Alexander Nuxoll sued, claiming the school policy violates his First Amendment right to voice his disapproval of homosexuality.
The court sympathized with the school’s struggle to maintain a respectful learning environment, but ultimately ruled that “people do not have a legal right to prevent criticisms of their beliefs or for that matter their way of life.”
Posner also questioned whether the banned slogan, a play on the words “happy” and “gay,” is actually derogatory. The school would allow a shirt that said, “Be Happy, Be Straight,” he said.
In her concurrence, Judge Rovner discussed in length why the slogan is derogatory, but also explained why open debate in schools is so vital.