What’s In A Name? — For First Amendment and Equal Treatment Purposes, Everything

By Judith E. Schaeffer, Vice President

For anyone concerned about the First Amendment, and equality, an article this week in a Florida newspaper brought the welcome news that a federal district court judge has just entered a permanent injunction prohibiting a public school board in that state from refusing to allow a high school Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) student group to meet unless the group changed its name. Back in March, the court, ruling in Gay-Straight Alliance of Yulee High School v. School Board of Nassau County, 602 F. Supp. 2d 1233 (M.D. Fla. 2009), granted the student plaintiffs a preliminary injunction against the school board, finding that they were likely to succeed in their claim that the board’s insistence on a name change violated the federal Equal Access Act as well as the free speech rights the court viewed as codified by the Act. Recognizing that the loss of First Amendment rights is irreparable, the court ordered the school board to recognize the GSA and allow it to meet under that name. The recently entered permanent injunction now makes that ruling final.

For those not familiar with the Equal Access Act, it’s a law passed by Congress back in 1984 that prohibits discrimination against high school student clubs, and was enacted largely at the urging of conservatives, who wanted students to be able to have prayer clubs and Bible clubs in their schools. Specifically, the Act requires public secondary schools that receive federal financial assistance, and that allow non-curriculum-related student groups to meet, to treat all such groups equally, and not discriminate against any group based on the “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech” at group meetings.

But in the 1990s, when gay students and their allies started forming Gay-Straight Alliances in their high schools in order to provide a safe environment for gay students and reduce violence and harassment against students based on sexual orientation, suddenly “equal” didn’t seem to mean equal anymore, as parents and school boards in some communities tried to keep GSAs from forming, despite the clear provisions of the Equal Access Act. Sometimes, as in the recent Yulee High School case, school boards have insisted that GSAs change their names, as though gay, or straight, or alliance, or a combination of the three, were improper words.

The name-change issue was successfully litigated nearly a decade ago in Colin v. Orange Unified School District, 83 F. Supp. 2d 1135 (C.D. Cal. 2000), by students who wanted to start a GSA in their southern California high school but were told by school officials that they had to change the group’s name to “the Tolerance Club” or something else similarly vague. The court ruled soundly in favor of the students, noting that “[a] group’s speech and association rights are implicated in the name that it chooses for itself.” Id. at 1147. While a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, the GSA name is important to students in announcing the specific purpose of the organization and expressing to “all the Alliance members across the country that they are not alone.” GSA of Yulee High School, 602 F. Supp. 2d at 1236, n.5. Accordingly, the court in Colin held that the school board’s “suggested name change clearly infringes on profound expressive meaning that the group attaches to its name.” 83 F. Supp. 2d at 1148. The recent ruling in the Yulee High School case relied heavily on Colin.

A big congratulations to the students at Yulee High School in Florida who courageously and successfully stood up for their rights.

Editor’s Note: Judith Schaeffer, then-Deputy Legal Director of People For the American Way Foundation, was co-counsel to the student plaintiffs in Colin v. Orange Unified School District