RALEIGH, N.C. – An openly gay student is fighting to campaign in his high school election with posters that read: "Gay Guys Know Everything!" and "Queer Guy for Hunt High."
Seventeen-year-old Jarred Gamwell has enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (search) to reverse a principal's decision last week that stripped the posters from the halls of James B. Hunt Jr. High School (search) in Wilson.
"The school administration's removal of these two campaign posters is a clear violation of Jarred's constitutional right to free expression," Leslie Cooper, an ACLU attorney, wrote in a letter to the school Monday. "The Supreme Court has made it clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."
School officials say they have the right to control and censor candidates for student body president, especially when their speech could interfere with learning.
"The language in the two campaign posters in question was determined to be disruptive to the educational process and to have no relevance to the student's qualifications for office," said Robert E. Kendall Jr., school district spokesman in Wilson County, 40 miles east of Raleigh.
In a letter to the ACLU, a lawyer for the district, David Orcutt, also said the school would also seek to prevent Gamwell from making similar statements in a campaign speech set to be broadcast Tuesday over the school intercom. Students vote Wednesday.
School administrators "have in no way attempted to regulate Mr. Gamwell's right as a homosexual nor have we in any way attempted to regulate his freedom of speech on those issues off-campus," Orcutt wrote.
Gamwell said in a phone interview Monday he has long suffered verbal harassment at the school, both from students and some teachers. The junior became public about his sexual orientation in the ninth grade.
The name-calling "rolls off my back," he said. "It's not something that's going to get me down. I have pride, and I have personal character."
Gamwell said he plans to speak Tuesday about what he will do for students as president of the student government. He said he wrote a second speech addressing censorship and the events of the last week, but said he will not deliver it.
By contacting the ACLU, Gamwell said he hoped to "raise awareness of what's going at the school, what administrators and teachers are trying to get away with. I want students to take their rights seriously."