'Straight Pride' shirts become free speech fight at St. Charles North

What began as a week of anti-bullying efforts at St. Charles North High School has become an ongoing battle to decide when free speech crosses over into harassment and disruption.

Three students Monday wore shirts to school with the words “Straight Pride” on the front and the back quoted one translation of a Biblical verse that calls homosexuality an “abomination” and says those who perform homosexual acts shall be “put to death.” The students wore the shirts during the first day of Ally Week. Nationally, the week is seen by many as a time to promote anti-bullying efforts against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. But student Amanda Harshbarger said the weeklong event she helped plan was geared against bullying of any form. Monday was specifically designated to recognize recent gay student suicides resulting from bullying across the nation.

“That's where the bad feelings started, because they chose to wear the shirts on a day specifically about gay teen suicide,” Harshbarger said. “What the shirts said were making kids feel violated and intimidated.”

School and District 303 staff handled the issue Monday by talking to the students about respectfully disagreeing with their classmates. The three students voluntarily agreed to blackout the Biblical quote and were allowed to wear the shirts the rest of the day, according to District Spokesman Jim Blaney. Students wearing the shirts on Monday did not respond to interview requests.

On Tuesday two students wore homemade “Straight Pride” shirts to school with no Biblical quote. Seniors Steven Boi and Jake Pezzuto said they soon found themselves without the freedom of speech given to the Monday students when school staff asked them to remove the shirts.

“The reason why we wore the shirts was just to express our views,” Boi said. “People have said Ally Week is for everyone, but after Monday it was clear that it was more designed for homosexual students. We wore our shirts on Tuesday to express our views that we're straight, and we have the right to express that. But my dean told me on Tuesday, because of the people who wore the other shirts on Monday, our shirts were considered disruptive to the learning environment. To me, Ally Week itself has been disruptive. Instead of learning in class, we have to sit there and talk about all this other stuff that's happening because of Ally Week.”

Pezzuto said it made no sense to him that he was asked to remove his shirt when other students have worn “Gay Pride” shirts in the past.

“I was shocked,” Pezzuto said. “There is clearly a double standard here, and we're really upset about this. They said the reason we can't wear ‘Straight Pride' shirts is because they are disruptive. And I can understand how maybe some people were intimidated by the shirts with the Bible verse. But I don't understand how some students are able to wear ‘Gay Pride' shirts while we can't wear shirts that just say ‘Straight Pride.' We wanted to wear them because we wanted to raise the fact that we were getting ripped on for supporting our straight sexuality, and also as a way to prove that our school has double standards.”

“I'm not against being proud and expressing pride in whatever sexual orientation you are,” Harshbarger said. “If the shirts had just said ‘Straight Pride' from the beginning, I think people would've seen them as a little rude, but not offensive. But by Tuesday, kids had a problem with even ‘Straight Pride' because of the context. Given everything that happened on Monday, it was like rubbing salt in the wound.”

Ally Week continues Friday. Word is spreading that a larger showing of students may wear “Straight Pride” or all-black shirts in protest of the district's decision to ask student not to wear anything containing those words. And when Friday comes, the Illinois chapter of the ACLU will be watching.

Spokesman Ed Yohnka said students expressing personal views on controversial topics with shirts is becoming more common. He said school districts must have a plan to address similar incidents or risk ending up in court like Neuqua Valley High School did a couple years ago. There, a student wore a “Be happy, not gay” shirt to school during the National Day of Silence. The battle over that shirt ended in a federal appellate court, which ruled the student should be allowed to wear the shirt. The court ruled the shirt couldn't reasonably be expected to provoke harassment of homosexual students or poison the educational atmosphere of the school.

“These issues are extraordinarily difficult for school districts because they really involve balancing a number of important and conflicting interests,” Yohnka said. “On one hand is the important right of students to engage in free speech. But school is also a compulsory activity. Students have to be there. So there is also the important right of a student to be there and get an education without any kind of harassment or feelings of being physically threatened. You don't want to either ban all of student speech nor create rules that seem to endorse harassment. What the courts have done in these cases is to watch the set of balances you have in place for that very carefully.”

Harshbarger and more than 100 students have committed to attend the Dec. 13 school board meeting to discuss their concerns with how school staff handled the situations this week.