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Students Can Wear Shirts With Anti-Gay Messages

CHICAGO (CN) - High school students have the right to express criticism of homosexuality by wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Be Happy, Not Gay," the 7th Circuit ruled.

Two teenagers from a high school in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, had won awards of $25 each in nominal damages after suing their school district and several school officials for infringing on their free-speech rights in 2006.

A day after gay rights group held a day of silence to draw attention to the harassment of gays and lesbians, Heidi Zamecnik wore a shirt with the opposite view to class at Neuqua Valley High School. The front of the shirt read "My Day of Silence, Straight Alliance," and the back read "Be Happy, Not Gay."

School officials blacked-out the words "Not Gay" on the shirt and banned repeated display of the slogan.

Zamecnik and another student, Alexander Nuxoll, filed suit, arguing that they wore the shirts because they disapprove of homosexuality on religious grounds. The school officials said they banned the shirt to protect the rights of gay students.

"But people in our society do not have a legal right to prevent criticism of their beliefs or even their way of life," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the 7th Circuit on Tuesday, upholding the District Court's finding of summary judgment against the Indian Prairie School District #204.

"A school that permits advocacy of the rights of homosexual students cannot be allowed to stifle criticism of homosexuality," Posner wrote. To do so, the school would have to prove that the speech causes a substantial disruption.

"Such facts might include a decline in students' test scores, an upsurge in truancy, or other symptoms of a sick school - but the school had presented no such facts in response to the motion for a preliminary injunction," Posner wrote.

"In this factual vacuum, we described 'Be Happy, Not Gay' as 'only tepidly negative,' saying that 'derogatory' or 'demeaning' seemed too strong a characterization," the ruling states, referring to the fact that the 7th Circuit ruled on the case before summary judgment. After the District Court had declined to grant the students an injunction to wear the shirt, the 7th Circuit reversed the decision.

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