Fla. district must pay $325,000 for banning pro-gay symbols

Principal loses position, will remain at school as an American government teacher

FLORIDA -- A federal judge ordered Holmes County School Board to pay $325,000 in attorney fees in a ruling that said the principal at Ponce de Leon High School violated students' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Ponce de Leon junior Heather Gillman sued the school district and then-Principal David Davis in January, claiming Davis prohibited students from wearing clothing, stickers and buttons supporting gay rights.

The students started the gay-rights movement at the school in September 2007 after Davis criticized a senior who said middle school students harassed her because she is a lesbian. Davis told her that homosexuality is a sin, told her to stay away from younger students and informed her parents she is a lesbian, according to court documents.

Gillman and other students began wearing rainbows and pink triangles, writing "Gay Pride" or "GP" on their bodies and wearing clothing with slogans such as "Gay? Fine By Me," "I'm Straight, But I Vote Pro-Gay," and "God Loves Me Just the Way I Am."

Davis then questioned students about their sexual orientation and suspended 11 students, including Gillman's cousin, for participating in the gay pride movement.

"Davis embarked on what can only the characterized as a 'witch hunt' to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters," wrote U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak in his written opinion, released July 24. Smoak issued his oral ruling in May, after the two-day trial, along with a permanent injunction ordering the school to let students wear pro-gay symbols.

In a letter to the school board in November 2007, Gillman -- through a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union -- listed 16 symbols and slogans and asked which ones students would be permitted to wear. In a reply letter, the school's lawyer said all those messages and symbols were prohibited because they "were used and can further be used by select students to show participation in an illegal organization as defined by the School Board."

Smoak applied a standard from a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said administrators cannot censor student speech unless there is a reasonable forecast of "material and substantial disruption" to the school or unless the speech will invade the rights of others.

"The Holmes County School Board has imposed an outright ban on speech by students that is not vulgar, lewd, obscene, plainly offensive, or violent, but which is pure, political, and expresses tolerance, acceptance, fairness, and support for not only a marginalized group, but more importantly, for a fellow student at Ponce de Leon," Smoak wrote.

Smoak held that any disruption in the school was not a result of the "innocuous symbols and phrases at issue" but due to Davis' "animosity toward students who were homosexual and his relentless crusade to extinguish the speech supporting them."

At trial, Davis testified that he believes homosexuality is a sin and an abomination that God will punish.

While Davis is entitled to his opinion of homosexuality, the exchange of ideas is crucial in a learning environment and he is not permitted to stifle speech, Smoak wrote. The judge also pointed out that while rainbow symbols were forbidden at the school, students were allowed to display swastikas and the Confederate flag. This clearly is viewpoint discrimination, he said.

"I find that students at Ponce de Leon, who were involved in the gay pride movement, were simply taking prophylactic measures to counteract Davis's illegal conduct in stifling their speech and support for their homosexual friends," Smoak wrote.

Superintendent Steve Griffin gave Davis the option to work in the district office or to teach. Davis chose to teach senior-level American government.

Griffin said there are multiple American government teachers, so Gillman will not necessarily have Davis as her government teacher this school year.

Also, in response to the ruling, all teachers at the school are undergoing sensitivity training this summer, where they will learn about First Amendments rights and free speech, Griffin said.

"Our district is in full compliance with what the judge ruled," Griffin said. "With training, our folks will receive information that will help them make the right decisions. They will learn that we treat everybody the same way and we have one set of rules for everybody."

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