School threatened over anti-discrimination policy
By Sarah Mieras And AP Wire Reports
TRAVERSE CITY -- Michigan schools who protect their students from discrimination and harassment have become the next target for the anti-gay American Family Association. The Traverse City Public Schools received a letter from the group last week threatening a lawsuit over its nondiscrimination policy.
Calling the district's anti-harassment policies "unconstitutional," the AFA pledged in the letter to "scrutinize" the policy and offered free legal assistance to any parents or students interested in filing suit against the district. The move by the local affiliate of the Mississippi-based AFA follows legal precedent set a month ago in a Pennsylvania case.
In February the Pennsylvania 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned anti-harassment rules used by the state college school system. The decision stated that the school's policies were too broad. The Pennsylvania school prohibited various forms of harassment based on sexual orientation and race as well as personal characteristics such as clothing, appearance and social skills. Handled by the AFA Center for Law and Policy, the Pennsylvania case argued that student's free speech rights were violated by the schools anti-harassment policy since the students risked expulsion if they expressed "disapproval of homosexual behavior."
The court's decision, binding only within the 3rd Circuit, is now being used by the Michigan AFA as rational to pursue test cases throughout the state.
"Traverse City is the only district we've yet discovered that has an unconstitutional speech code in place," Gary Glenn, AFA-Michigan's director, told the Associated Press. "But I'd be very surprised if there were not many such speech codes around the state."
Surprisingly, the Traverse City district's policy does not include protection against harassment based on a student's sexual orientation. And, according to an Associated Press report, the district's Assistant Superintendent Jayne Mohr said the policy isn't intended to cover sexual orientation.
Superintendent James Pavelka said he first heard about the letter was when his office was contacted by the media.
"I didn't even get a courtesy of a phone call," Pavelka told BTL. "But if somebody wants to sue us, that's the American way. But we're not in the business of harassment and we don't want any of the students or adults in our schools intimidated."
Pavelka said the policy is being reviewed by the district's legal team. "It's my assumption that most school districts in the state have the same policy as we do," he said.
Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said harassment in schools can have an affect on student's ability to learn. The ACLU's national offices, said Moss, are in the process of developing a policy for schools that jumps the hurdles outlined in the Pennsylvania case.
"What is interesting about what Gary Glenn is doing in Traverse City is that he is saying is that under these speech codes he could be punished if he made anti-gay statements," Moss said. "Basically what he is asking for is the right to harass a student based on their sexual orientation."
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Last updated 3/12/2001 by Jean Richter, richter@eecs.Berkeley.EDU