East High Gay Straight Alliance v. Board of Education of Salt Lake City School District
When a group of students attempted to form a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at East High School in the Salt Lake City School District, the school refused to allow it. But to avoid a violation of the federal Equal Access Act, the district said it was banning all non-curricular student groups so they could argue that the GSA was treated equally. But groups such as Future Homemakers of America were still allowed to meet, and we believed they were non-curricular, meaning other non-curricular clubs like the GSA must be allowed to meet as well. Lambda Legal was lead counsel in a coalition of groups that filed suit against the district for violating the Equal Access Act and abridging the students' First Amendment rights to express gay-positive opinions at school. A district court judge ruled that the school district had been in violation of the law, but in the course of the lawsuit had cured the violations. After we appealed, the school district allowed the GSA to meet and dismissed the appeal.
GSAs help combat discrimination and harassment against LGBT students in schools and provide a vital source of support for a vulnerable population. But at the time the lawsuit was filed, information about GSAs' legal rights was largely non-existent, so not many students knew they could fight back, few lawyers knew how to help, and most schools freely barred students' requests to form the groups.
Lambda Legal's Impact
This case more than any other put the issue of GSAs on the nation's radar, letting students know they could fight back and letting school districts know they might be in violation of the law. To increase the impact, Lambda Legal wrote the first-ever guidelines for students, parents and lawyers about the Equal Access Act and began a massive outreach effort to education and legal groups around the country. The litigation itself also produced the first detailed deposition outlines for the challenging task of establishing that other non-curricular groups were being allowed to meet in a school district.
- March 1998 Lambda Legal, the ACLU and NCLR file suit against the Salt Lake City Board of Education for violating provisions of the Equal Access Act and suppressing students' First Amendment rights by prohibiting gay-positive speech.
- November 1999 After extensive discovery battles and cross-motions for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins entered a judgment and order of dismissal reflecting that plaintiffs' rights were violated in school year 1997-98, but that defendant had cured both the EAA and First Amendment violations, mooting out the case. Subsequently, the judge ordered that the school district pay attorneys' fees to plaintiffs for their partial victory.
- December 1999 Lambda Legal files a notice of appeal in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals contesting the trial judge's finding that no non-curricular student groups were meeting after the 1997-98 school year.
- November 2000 After the matter was fully briefed on appeal, the school district decided to allow the GSA and other non-curricular student groups to meet, and the case was voluntarily dismissed.