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FL School Violated Student’s Constitutional Right To Protest Bullying

Florida_svgAmber Hatcher and Lambda Legal have won an important, though partial, victory in a federal case involving the Day of Silence, the annual day that the LGBT Community take as a vow of silence in order to bring attention to the silencing effect of bullying.

Amber is openly lesbian and a student at DeSoto County High School in Arcadia, Florida. She attempted to observe the event last year. She passed out information about the reasons for her silence, and she wore a t-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh.” School officials did not want that and cut her participation short. The administration suspended her after third period.

Amber’s case was brought by Lambda Legal and sought a judicial delcaration that the school violated Amber’s constitutional rights, and a preliminary injunction to prevent her from being silenced this year. The Day of Silence will be on 19 April this year.

The court refused to give her the injunction, but did continue the case regarding the First Amendment claims. The Court ruled that her rights include the right to not speak. The judge refused to dismiss the claims, and found that there was a good likelihood that the claims would be upheld with further litigtion.

The judge declined the request for the injunction due to assurances from the school’s administration would not interfere with her silent protest this year.

According to Youth Allies:

The upshot is that, one, Amber will be able to participate in the Day of Silence this year, even though the court won’t actually issue an order to that effect, and two, Amber can proceed with her First Amendment lawsuit against school officials and the school board based on last year’s violation of her rights.

Amber said through Lambda Legal:

There are many LGBT kids in my school who have been bullied and harassed and who feel unsafe. I just wanted to stand up for all the kids in my school, gay or straight, who don’t feel like they have a voice to stand up for themselves. I wish my school would help me create an accepting environment for LGBT kids, not single me out for punishment.

Beth Littrell, the lead counsel on the case, stated

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 [the] National Day of Silence this year. 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.

Amber did try to get permission to observe the Day of Silence at her school, but the school’s superintendent decided to try and stop her saying that “[i]t is inconsistent with the district’s past practice to approve student protests on any of our campuses…Since this [the Day of Silence] is classified as a protest, … I will not approve the activity on our campuses.”

Even though the superintendent and the principal of the school were informed by Lambda Legal that what they were doing was a violation of Amber’s constitutional rights, the school district told the teachers to shut it down.

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