Chicago Teen Sues High School Over Ban Of Anti-Gay T-Shirt

Student wore 'Be Happy, Not Gay' shirt to school after Day of Silence event.

Neuqua Valley High School senior Heidi Zamecnik had a simple message for those who participated in her school's Day of Silence, a national event that protests harassment of gays in schools: "Be Happy, Not Gay."

That was the message printed on the T-shirt Zamecnik, 17, wore the day after the event at the Naperville, Illinois, school last year. But after administrators made her alter the message and said she couldn't wear the shirt again this year, Zamecnik filed suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, arguing that the school violated her civil rights by not allowing her to express her moral opposition to homosexuality, according to her lawyer.

"Pursuant of her earnest religious convictions, Heidi sought a way to communicate her belief that homosexual conduct doesn't lead to happiness," said lawyer Nate Kellum, who works with the Christian legal organization the Alliance Defense Fund. "She wanted to wear a T-shirt communicating that idea."

According to the suit, Zamecnik wore the "Be Happy" shirt to school in April in response to the 10th annual Day of Silence, during which students can refuse to talk during the school day — even to teachers and administrators. In reaction to a day during which students wore T-shirts, stickers and buttons to bring attention to the harassment of homosexual classmates, Zamecnik donned her shirt the next day as a form of protest.

"They don't talk, but they wear T-shirts promoting their viewpoint on homosexual behavior, so Heidi felt strongly that she wanted to show the other viewpoint," explained Kellum, who has been involved in several similar cases around the country and who recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of student Joseph Frederick in the U.S. Supreme Court's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case (see "Could 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' Case Chill Free Speech In Schools?").

Kellum said the school's dean of students pulled Zamecnik aside and asked her to remove the shirt or leave school, because the message offended others, according to the dean. Zamecnik refused to take the shirt off or go home, so administrators and Zamecnik's mother agreed that the shirt's message could be altered to read "Be Happy. Be Straight." But, Kellum said, the dean then instructed a counselor to cross out the words "Not Gay" with a black marker, so the shirt simply read, "Be Happy."

Zamecnik and her parents tried to discuss the incident with school officials and work out an arrangement that would allow her to wear the shirt again after this year's April 18 Day of Silence. But, according to the suit, administrators denied the request and said their staff had done nothing wrong.

"I'm not sure if she wants to wear the same shirt this year, but she wants to wear something with a similar message," Kellum said, adding that the suit was also filed on behalf of freshman schoolmate Alex Nuxoll, whose family is friends with the Zamecnik's and who wants to express similar sentiments.

The suit claims that Zamecnik suffered unlawful discrimination, humiliation and punishment by school personnel because they didn't agree with her viewpoint.

Janet Buglio, a spokesperson for the Indian Prairie School District, said she was not able to comment on the case but provided a copy of the school's student dress policy, which states, "A student's dress and grooming must not disrupt the educational process, interfere with a positive teaching and learning climate. ... No garments with messages, graphics or symbols ... which are derogatory, inflammatory, sexual or discriminatory will be worn at school."

The problem with that provision, said Kellum, is that it allows students to promote one side of a debate while shutting down the other. "There's something fundamentally wrong with that policy," he said. "There's so much freedom with that vague language that a message promoting homosexual behavior is fine but speaking out against it is inflammatory. At the bottom of it, what this is all about is the fundamental right, regardless of your thoughts or beliefs on an issue, to express yourself and the fact that a student does not forgo that fundamental speech right by stepping onto school grounds."