It seems that much to the chagrin of public schools, students do have constitutional rights.
In the case of Constance McMillen not being allowed to attend the prom with her girlfriend, a Mississippi federal court has found that Itawamba Agricultural High School had violated her first amendment right to freedom of speech.
As a refresher, Itawamba Agricultural High School sent out a memo to students (PDF link) in regards to the impending prom to be held on April 2nd. In the memo it stated that dates must be of the opposite sex, and that girls were to only wear dresses.
Ms. McMillen is an 18-year-old senior at the school, and has been out about being a lesbian since the eighth grade. She went to the Asst. Principal to request permission to attend the prom with sophomore girlfriend, and also asked for permission to wear a tuxedo. The Asst. Principal denied both requests, but said they both could attend in the company of males.
Ms. McMillen went on to talk to the Principal and Superintendent of the school district. The answer she received there was that they could attend separately, but would not be allowed to dance with one another and would be “kicked out” if they “pushed anyone’s buttons.”
Not deterred, Ms. McMillen then called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU sent a letter to the school informing them of its intentions to sue if the school did not open its policies to students of all sexual orientations. The school was given until March 10th to reply, and on March 9th an emergency meeting was held on the matter. On March 10th, the school gave its answer in the form of canceling the prom, or as they put it, “withdrew its sponsorship” of the event.
The ACLU tried to get an injunction forcing the school to continue with the prom, and though the judge found that Ms. McMillen met three of the four requirements, she had to meet all four for the injunction. However, the most positive thing to come out of the ruling (PDF link) was that the judge did rule that the school had violated her constitutional right to free speech, which has been defined as “expression” in previous cases.
In short, if Ms. McMillen chooses to peruse this further, she has a constitutional law case on her hands, and the school is going to have a nearly impossible time defending itself.
In the meantime, an alternative prom is being organized by local citizens, and thus far is being labeled as being open to all students who wish to attend.
“It feels really good that the court realized that the school was violating my rights and discriminating against me by canceling the prom. All I ever wanted was for my school to treat me and my girlfriend like any other couple that wants to go to prom,” said McMillen. “Now we can all get back to things like picking out our prom night outfits and thinking about corsages.”
On a personal note, I hope she does take this further. Schools have been taking on more and more of an air that the children are cattle and have no rights but those they choose to let them have.