Students and Salt Lake City School Board End Feud over Gay-Supportive Clubs
Students and school board settle two lawsuits and appeals
(NEW YORK, October 6, 2000) – Reversing the most extreme steps taken anywhere in the country against gay-supportive student clubs, the Salt Lake City School Board has decided to change its policy and allow the clubs to meet at schools in the Salt Lake City School District. That decision means two lawsuits on behalf of the clubs can finally be dropped, said attorneys for the students Friday.
Lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights hailed the agreement, which concludes nearly five years of controversy.
“We applaud the school board for putting students first again and recognizing that banning these clubs has harmed all students,” said Stephen Clark of the ACLU of Utah. He added, “Now everyone wins – all the student clubs are back, the gay-supportive clubs are free to express themselves and help make a safer school environment, and education is back in the front seat.”
The school board had banned all non-curricular student clubs, of which there were 46 ranging from the Young Republicans to the Black Students Union, in order to block a gay/straight student alliance, or GSA, that East High students first sought to form in October 1995.
To block the GSA, the school had to issue a blanket club ban on all non-curricular clubs because, under the Equal Access Act, schools accepting federal funds may not censor some non-curricular clubs if any are allowed on campus.
In 1998, students sued for the right of their non-curricular club, the GSA to meet, alleging that the school had violated their rights under the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment. In an effort to defeat the students’ free speech claims in the case, school officials announced a policy saying that there was no prohibition on expression of gay-positive viewpoints in curricular settings. In 1999, taking the policy at its word and fearing their GSA would remain tied up in court until after they graduated, students decided to form a curricular club with a gay perspective called PRISM, for People Respecting Important Social Movements. School officials denied approval of this club as well, and the students again went to court, obtaining a preliminary injunction that allowed PRISM to meet while their case proceeded.
On September 5, under the shadow of lawsuits and national publicity, the board voted to lift the club bans. But, until the GSA and PRISM Club received approval from school officials late Thursday, it remained uncertain if gay-supportive student clubs would receive approval from school officials to meet on campus and have the same rights as other student clubs.
“I am proud to be an East High student today,” said 12-grader Maggie Hinckley, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuits. “Now all the clubs are back, and students are being treated fairly. We can work for all students to feel safe and supported at school, plus we can participate in clubs that will help us get into college,” she added.
Said Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights,“We are glad to see the change of heart by the Board and an end to the harm caused students for the last half of this past decade. The Board now is setting an example for students about treating everyone fairly regardless of sexual orientation.”
Supervising Attorney Jon W. Davidson of Lambda’s Western Regional Office said, “With more than 700 student-organized GSA’s nationwide, it is foolish for school boards to think that they can turn back the groundswell of these groups seeking equality.” He noted the recent successful end of another Lambda case, where the Orange Unified School District in California sparked intense controversy by attempting to block a GSA at El Modena High School. Last month, in line with a federal court injunction in the case, the board settled and allowed the GSA to meet on campus.
In the first Salt Lake City lawsuit, students said that the Board infringed their first amendment rights by censoring expression of gay-positive viewpoints and violated the federal Equal Access Act in blocking the GSA.
In the fall of 1999, United States Senior District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins ruled in the case, East High Gay/Straight Alliance v. Board of Education, agreeing that the board violated the Equal Access Act. But based on the board’s announcement that district policy and a new statewide regulation prohibited sexual orientation discrimination as well as censorship of gay-positive viewpoints, he did not agree that the violation was ongoing or that the First Amendment was violated.
The students appealed, still seeking basics like the right for their GSA to meet after school, use club bulletin boards, and be in the yearbook.
The new policy applied to curricular clubs, but not the GSA, which remained tied up in appeal. So, the students decided to apply for approval of a school-sponsored curricular club, called PRISM, that would discuss curricular subjects in terms of the real-world experience and contributions of lesbians and gay men. But the district denied PRISM’s application, giving rise to the second federal lawsuit, East High PRISM Club v. Seidel, and an injunction which forced a district official to allow the PRISM club to meet. This led the District to file its own appeal. With the settlement of the two lawsuits, including withdrawal of the both appeals, the last remaining court battles over groups like GSA’s have ended on the national scene. Elsewhere in the country, in California, Colorado, and New Hampshire, schools settled earlier on, never taking the extreme step of banning all non-curricular clubs.
Said Senior Staff Attorney David S. Buckel, author of Lambda’s publications about defending GSA’s, “The trend in schools is to recognize that gay-supportive student groups promote better and safer schools. The lesson from Salt Lake City is in big block letters on the chalk board: do not harm your students to block a gay-supportive club and do not spend hundreds of thousands in education dollars defending that harm. Do the right thing from the beginning.”
Contact: Peg Byron, Lambda, 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 pager; David S. Buckel, Lambda, 212-809-8585 x 212; Stephen Clark, ACLU, 801-521-9289; Shannon Minter, NCLR, 415-392-6257