A group of Celina High School students are at the center of a contentious debate on free speech after nearly two dozen students were told to remove their shirts that support gay rights.
It all started last week when two girls celebrated the school's "Twin Day" by wearing shirts reading "Lesbian 1" and "Lesbian 2." School officials quickly told the teens to take the shirts off, according to U.S. News & World Report.
In a show of solidarity, a group of about 20 students returned to school this week wearing shirts that read "I support… Express yourself," with the image of a rainbow. (See a full image of the T-shirt below.)
Celina sophomore Jimmy Walter tells U.S. News that he coordinated the event to support his older sister, one of the two girls who wore the "Lesbian" 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 said.
Reddit user KyraGrace, identified by U.S. News as Celina junior Erick Warner, says that the students were punished because they wore attire that was political in nature -- a rule that doesn't exist in the student handbook. He adds that other students wear political clothing to school all the time.
"This school promotes their pro-life club called the 'Students for Life,'" he wrote in a Reddit post that has now gone viral. "They have their own shirts, which have a fetus and promotes pro-life… How is that not considered 'political'?"
He sent an image to HyperVocal of a student sitting across from him during class wearing a Romney-Ryan T-shirt to prove its regularity. Vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan had held an energetic campaign rally at Celina High School just days before, in the battleground state of Ohio's conservative-leaning Mercer County.
Superintendent Jesse Steiner says, however, that it's unlikely the students were told to remove the shirts for political meaning, but that they could be asked to do so for being disruptive. While the school's dress code doesn't ban political attire, it does include a clause that prohibits anything that may "materially interfere with school work, create disorder or disrupt the education program." It also notes that "the Board will not interfere with the rights of students and their parents to make decisions regarding their appearance, except when their choices interfere with the educational program of the schools."
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement Friday urging school officials to reconsider their censorship of pro-gay clothing, arguing that it violates the students' rights to free speech. ACLU leaders also say the school exercised a "heckler's veto" in "efforts to silence students because their viewpoint is unpopular with other students."
“Schools should be a place where students are free to express their beliefs,” ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman said in a statement Friday. “None of these young people acted inappropriately, and only wished to express their support for all members of their community. Expressing their views did not disrupt the learning environment, but now the administration’s unconstitutional overreaction has.”
Warner tells HyperVocal that he and other students are considering wearing their rainbow shirts again in a sign of protest, but want to solidify support beforehand for fear of possible suspension.
According to WHIO-TV, both the school and the students are consulting lawyers. If either side chooses to take action, historical evidence shows the court may rule in the students' favor.
In May, Ohio high school student Maverick Couch was awarded $20,000 in a lawsuit he filed agains the Waynesville Local School District. The settlement came after Couch sued the district for violating his freedom of expression rights for disallowing him to wear a T-shirt that read "Jesus Is Not A Homophobe" and the image of a rainbow fish.