Got Free Speech?

On September 21, 2007, Heathyre Farnham was sent home from school early. Her offense? She had arrived at school wearing a t-shirt that read “gay? fine by me.”

A 10th grade student in the Spencer-Van Etten School District in Tioga County, Heathyre quickly responded to the school’s censorship by organizing her community with the support of her mother, Brynda Beeman.

When the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) intervened in October, the school district admitted it had violated Farnham’s free speech rights. Barrie Gewanter, director of the NYCLU’s Central New York Chapter, worked with NYCLU staff attorneys Matt Faiella and Palyn Hung to represent Farnham. 

“Heathyre displayed enormous courage in refusing to surrender her First Amendment rights or the rights of her classmates,” Faiella said. “These students stand behind an inclusive message of free speech, and I think that’s great.”

Gewanter delivered a presentation to the high school’s faculty on students’ First Amendment rights on October 22. The following day, the school district’s attorney publicly admitted that the censorship was a mistake. That evening, Gewanter addressed the district’s school board, while Faiella continued to negotiate with the school district’s attorneys about issuing a statement to the high school’s students affirming their free speech rights.

On November 2, the following message, most of which was proposed by the NYCLU, was broadcast over the school’s public address system:

“The school dress code does not prohibit students from displaying controversial or political messages. There is a wide range of these types of messages that are acceptable, including messages supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The dress code does prohibit students from displaying obscene or profane words or images or messages promoting the use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco products.” “When you enact censorship like this, it puts a chilling effect on the student body, and you cannot cure this chill with silence,” Gewanter said. “We appreciated the opportunity to address the faculty and school board, but the Spencer-Van Etten school district had the further obligation to inform students that they have First Amendment rights in their school.”

The school district also issued Farnham a private apology.

This incident and the publicity generated through Heathyre’s organizing efforts created an opportunity to educate the school board, faculty, and the community on students’ free speech rights and the challenges some LGBT youth face within their schools. It’s a powerful reminder that the real battles for our freedoms are often fought by ordinary people everyday right in our own communities.

–Jessica Maxwell