Know Your Rights

Your Legal Right To Form a GSA

Starting a GSA? The law is on your side

  • It’s your First Amendment right to speak freely and to associate for expressive purposes, as long as you don't “materially and substantially” disrupt your educational environment. Your rights to free speech and association include forming a gay-straight alliance at your school.

  • Under a federal law called the Equal Access Act (EAA), secondary schools that receive federal funding and allow meetings of other non-curricular student clubs (clubs that don’t directly relate to classes at your school) are prohibited from discriminating against any student group based on its viewpoint.

  • Public secondary schools are covered by the Equal Access Act if they allow even one non-curricular club to meet at the school. If your school is covered (most public secondary schools are), then you have a legal right to form a GSA and to have it be treated like any other student club at your school.

Generally, schools may NOT:

  • Single out GSAs for parental permission requirements, requiring students to get their guardians’ consent before they can join. Even if parental consent rules are supported by the local school board or by state law, the Equal Access Act requires that such rules be applied equally to all student groups.
  • Deny GSAs permission to form because they would create “controversy.” This is a legally insufficient excuse, and it cannot be used to deny a GSA access to privileges that are granted other clubs. If other people complain about or protest the existence of a GSA, that does not mean that the GSA itself has caused the disruption. In other words, the law says there is no “heckler’s veto” over someone else’s speech. GSA members should be cautioned, though, about engaging in heated confrontations; they could be construed as disrupting your educational environment.
  • Require a GSA to “tone down” its name (e.g., change it to the “Diversity Club” or “Tolerance Club,” rather than incorporating words or phrases like “gay” or “LGBTQ”). Prohibiting GSAs from using these words infringes on students’ rights to be treated equally and to free expression.
  • Deny a GSA access to bulletin boards, the public address system and other privileges, if it extends these privileges to any other non-curriculum-related club. Failure to grant a GSA the same privileges, or treating the GSA in any way that discriminates against it, may violate the EAA, the Equal Protection Clause of the federal or state constitutions, the First Amendment and/or state statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Contact Lambda Legal (866-542-8336 or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help) if you have questions about GSAs and your legal rights.