By John Jalsevac

July 28, 2008 ( – A judge in Holmes County, Florida, has ruled that the school board cannot forbid students from “wearing or displaying t-shirts, armbands, stickers, or buttons containing messages and symbols which advocate the acceptance of and fair treatment for persons who are homosexual.”

The case that led to the ruling surrounded incidents at Ponce de Leon High School in Holmes County. According to court documents, a 12th grade student – called “Jane Doe” by the court – went to school officials last year to complain that she was being taunted by a group of middle schools students because of her homosexuality.

The complaint was passed on to the school’s principal, David Davis, who met with the student after school on September 10, 2007. Davis allegedly questioned Doe about her sexual orientation, and in the process told her that it was “wrong” to be a homosexual. Davis also stated his intention to inform Doe’s parents that she was a homosexual.

The day after Davis’ encounter with the student, a false rumor began to spread that the principal had suspended Doe because of her homosexuality. A number of students began to organize various acts of protest, ranging from initiating a petition drive, to the wearing of various t-shirts and armbands with slogans such as: “Gay? Fine By Me,” “I Support My Gay Friends,” “God Loves Me Just the Way I Am,” “Pro-Gay Marriage,” and “Sexual Orientation is Not a Choice. Religion, However, Is.”

Some of the students also arranged to walk en masse out of a morality assembly that they falsely believed had been convened to address the question of homosexuality. In the end they did not follow through on their plan to walk out, after the speaker did not address homosexual issues.

After the assembly Principal Davis met with approximately 30 students who had been most heavily involved in the protests, and forbade them from wearing the shirts and armbands. He also forbade students who said they were homosexual from discussing their homosexuality.

Davis was supported in his decision by the School Board, which stated in a letter that the “phrases, symbols or images” displayed by the students were forbidden, due to the fact that “the expressions indicated membership in an ‘illegal organization’ prohibited by School Board policy and were disruptive to the educational process.”

Shortly thereafter Davis suspended 11 students for their involvement in the pro-gay protests.

One of the students who was suspended was the cousin of another student, Heather Gillman, who subsequently, with the help of her mother and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sued the school for violating her constitutional free speech rights.

Justice Richard Smoak, in his decision against the Holmes County school board – which he called Davis’ “alter-ego,” in that it fully espoused the principal’s actions – discounted Davis’ claims that the pro-homosexual protests were disruptive. Smoak took issue with Davis’ concerns that the middle school students would prematurely be exposed to mature themes such as homosexuality. As the judge observed, the library at the school routinely carried magazines with numerous sexually explicit articles and images, such as Vogue, Seventeen and Cosmogirl.

“The innocuous expressions of tolerance and acceptance inherent in the banned expressions are far less inappropriate for middle school students than the sexually explicit articles in those magazines and the sexual content to which children are exposed daily in the popular culture,” he wrote, also observing that numerous books have been written and are widely in use that introduce young children to “alternative” families and lifestyles.
  Smoak argued that “Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a ‘witch hunt’ to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters, further adding fuel to the fire.”

“Davis’s conduct, in the capacity of a role model and authority figure,” he wrote, “is particularly deplorable in light of studies which confirm the vulnerability of gay and lesbian students.”

Justice Smoak ordered that the school board “shall take such affirmative steps as are necessary to remedy the past restraints of expression of support for the respect, equal treatment, and acceptance of homosexuals.”

According to a report from the ACLU, Principal Davis has since been replaced at Ponce de Leon High School. 

To read the complete decision, see: