Ohio High School Students Told To Remove Rainbow T-Shirts Supporting Gay Rights

The gay T-shirts may be prohibited because they are "political," or because they could a cause a disruption.

The debate at Celina High School started after two female high school students celebrated the high school's "Twin Day" last week by wearing shirts to school that read "Lesbian 1" and "Lesbian 2" on the back. They were promptly asked to remove the T-shirts, according to students there. On Tuesday, some 20 students decided to show their support of the girls by wearing their own T-shirts to school. The shirts read: "I support..." with a photo of a rainbow. "Express yourself."

(Credit: Jimmy Walter)

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Just three days after Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan held an energetic rally in Celina, Ohio, the seat of one of the most firmly Republican counties in the state, the high school there is at the center of a debate over what constitutes "political" or "disruptive" clothing.

The debate at Celina High School started after two female high school students celebrated the high school's "Twin Day" last week by wearing shirts to school that read "Lesbian 1" and "Lesbian 2" on the back. They were promptly asked to remove the T-shirts, according to students there.

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On Tuesday, some 20 students decided to show their support of the girls by wearing their own T-shirts to school. The shirts read: "I support..." with a photo of a rainbow. "Express yourself."

Jimmy Walter, a sophomore at the public high school, says he organized the T-shirts in defense of his older sister, one of the female students who wore the Twin Day shirts. "My sister got yelled at and screamed at [by administrators], and she was basically told she was unwanted at the school because she was gay," he says.

Celina High School Superintendent Jesse Steiner says there are "definitely two stories" to the incident.

But both sides agree the students who wore the rainbow T-shirts were asked to remove them.

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Students were told the T-shirts were prohibited because they were "political," according to Warner, despite no such rule in the school dress code. Steiner was not able to confirm if this rule was or wasn't part of the code.

Erick Warner, a junior at Celina High School, says students wear what he sees as political clothing to school all time.

"[Our high] school promotes their pro-life club called the 'Students for Life". They have their own shirts, which have a fetus and promotes pro-life," Warner wrote on Reddit, in a post about the incident that has now gone viral on the social news site. "How is that not considered "political"?

Warner, who did not wear the rainbow T-shirt but supports the students who did, says he also regularly sees classmates wear Mitt Romney T-shirts to school, or T-shirts that call President Obama a socialist.

Superintendent Steiner says it's more likely students were asked to remove the T-shirts because they were disruptive, not because they were political.

"The only reason they would be told that they couldn't wear something is if it is a disruption of the educational process, or if it's not allowed in the handbook," Steiner says. "And there's a line in our handbook about drawing undue attention to yourself."

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The Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit that protects constitutional rights, doesn't think Steiner's argument holds any water. "This is what's called a 'heckler's veto,'" says Drew Dennis, a litigation coordinator at ACLU Ohio. "It sounds like the school is trying to silence the students who are expressing an unpopular viewpoint on the basis that there will be individuals who disagree with that message."

Walter, the protest organizer, argues that he and other students did not try to draw any undue attention to their shirts. Warner agrees, saying he didn't "give a second look" to the rainbow T-shirts. But the pro-life T-shirts featuring a fetus, he says, "you can see from a mile away."

Both sides say they are now consulting lawyers. If the incident goes to court, precedent seems to be on the students' side. In the famous 1969 case of Tinker V. Des Moines Independent, the court found that neither "students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," meaning the First Amendment protected expressive clothing worn by students.

And just last year, a high school student won a similar case in Ohio after he was threatened with suspension by administrators for wearing a T-shirt to school featuring a rainbow fish and a slogan that read "Jesus is not a homophobe." The student was eventually awarded $20,000 in damages and for legal fees.