There is a gay-straight alliance at Leo Jr. Sr. High School in Allen County, Indiana.
But according to a new lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, this school’s club for LGBT students and their allies isn’t allowed to call itself a “gay-straight alliance” or even a “GSA,” and is instead only permitted to refer to itself as a “Pride Alliance.”
There’s another catch, too: The GSA can’t use the “Pride” in its name to refer to LGBT Pride. Instead, “Pride” is allegedly required to be used as a reference to an a common school acronym: “Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Diligence, and Excellence.”
“There is a lot of language policing,” Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, told The Daily Beast, but it may go well beyond that, too, according to the complaint, filed at the end of November in U.S. District Court.
The ACLU of Indiana’s complaint alleges the Leo Pride Alliance is treated differently from other extracurricular clubs at the school, claiming that it is “not allowed to meet outside of a single classroom,” that it is barred from participating in school fundraisers, and that it can only put up a bulletin board “if members performed community service outside of the school, a requirement not imposed on any other club.”
Other clubs, by contrast, are reportedly allowed to host activities outside of their regular meetings.
Asked by The Daily Beast about the lawsuit, an East Allen County Schools spokesperson said, “We take the rights of our students seriously. We are looking into this matter.”
According to the complaint, the Leo Pride Alliance has been in existence for two years and now boasts over 30 members. The lawsuit alleges that Leo Jr. Sr. High School staff have told the GSA that it can’t even use terms like “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer” in its advertising—terms that would help LGBT students understand the club’s purpose of providing support and community.
There are currently over 4,000 GSAs in the United States, according to the LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal, and court cases have repeatedly upheld both their right to exist under the federal Equal Access Act and their right to call themselves “gay-straight alliances” rather than something more euphemistic. The Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, requires schools that allow extracurricular clubs to treat them fairly.
“There have been several court cases involving schools that have tried to force GSAs to adopt ‘less divisive’ names or broaden the scope of the group’s mission statement to include other issues,” a GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders resource notes [PDF]. “In all those cases, the GSAs have won the right to keep their name.”
According to Falk, denying a GSA its full name not only violates the First Amendment but also sends a potentially damaging message to LGBT youth, many of whom are in early and potentially vulnerable stages of coming out.
“If you have to start that whole process off by not even being able to identify yourself with the name that would put you in line with the thousands of other GSAs across the country, you can see, right off the bat, you’re being told that in some way, there is something that needs to be suppressed in who you are,” he said. “That’s the complete opposite of the message that a GSA is designed to give.”
There’s one more disturbing allegation in the lawsuit, that could prove harmful for LGBT students at Leo Jr. Sr. High School: The complaint alleges that the Leo Pride Alliance’s faculty advisor “is required to send a list of all club members to all faculty”—and that no other clubs are required to follow this protocol.
In effect, every teacher in the school would know who goes to GSA meetings. For closeted or questioning LGBT students who are concerned about being outed, Falk says, this policy could deter them from seeking the support they need at a critical time in their life.
“There is obviously a bit of a chilling factor there because there may be students who are coming to the club who do not want to be identified throughout the school’s faculty as club members,” Falk told The Daily Beast.
The ACLU of Indiana’s lawsuit makes three separate but intertwined legal claims: First, ACLU-IN alleges that the school is violating the Equal Access Act by not allowing the GSA to operate under the same terms as other clubs, with fundraisers and bulletin boards.
Second, ACLU-In alleges that the school is violating the First Amendment by trying to control the language used in the group’s name and in its marketing.
And finally, the complaint claims that the “differential treatment” of the club is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The ACLU has participated in a long string of successful GSA cases, stretching from 1996 when LGBT groups sued a Salt Lake City school district over an anti-GSA policy to 2014 when an Indiana high school decided to allow a GSA after an ACLU-IN lawsuit was filed.
Schools have used various tactics to constrain GSAs, ranging from imposing name restrictions to, at the most extreme, shutting down all extracurricular clubs as a way to block a GSA while still remaining in compliance with the federal Equal Access Act.
“It’s surprising to me how frequently issues like this arise,” said Falk. “This is our fourth GSA case [in Indiana], and the law in this area seems to be pretty much settled but yet we keep coming back to it.”