"Marriage is so gay" T-shirt: Colorado Springs' Falcon High School drops ban after ACLU letter

Update: Well, that didn't take long. Only hours after the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to an El Paso County school district demanding that Falcon High School student Kate Cohn be allowed to wear a T-shirt that reads "marriage is so gay," the principal who originally declared it an offensive dress-code violation reversed course -- although, predictably, the district claims the decision was unrelated to the ACLU's action.

That's the word in a Denver Post report, which provides some fascinating context for the switch.

A school district spokeswoman told the Post that a legal review of the matter had been underway since the incident took place, back on election day, November 2. According to Cohn, Falcon principal Mark Carara told her after school yesterday about the decision change -- and said it had come about as a result of lawyers getting involved.

The retreat makes sense in the context of an anecdote shared with the Post by ACLU attorney Rebecca Wallace, the author of the letter on view below. She says a friend of Cohn's was allowed to wear an anti-abortion T-shirt featuring a baby inside a peace sign that read, "Give peace a chance -- at least a nine-month cease-fire." This example suggests strongly that Carara's objection to Cohn's shirt had more to do with the message than the fact that it took a political position -- in this case, a pro-gay-marriage stance of the sort that plenty of folks in hyper-conservative Colorado Springs may not like.

Check out this interview with Cohn on the Pride in Utah site, and read our original coverage below:

Original item, 12:57 p.m. November 16: Are schools justified in banning any T-shirt featuring the word "gay" even if the term's used in the context of a call for equality? That's the issue at Colorado Springs' Falcon High School, where student Kate Cohn was told to change a T-shirt emblazoned with the pro-gay-marriage slogan "marriage is so gay" because it allegedly violated the school's dress code. But the ACLU disagrees, demanding that Falcon's principal rescind his action.

According to an ACLU release on view below, Falcon principal Mark Carara told Cohn the shirt was "offensive and violated the school's dress code banning apparel that is potentially disruptive to the academic environment." The ACLU insists that no disruption took place.

In addition, the ACLU maintains that Carara explained his decision regarding Cohn's shirt by comparing it to "apparel that promotes drug or alcohol use."

Does that mean gay people shouldn't get married and drive?

Whatever the case, ACLU attorney Rebecca Wallace sees the shirt as protected political speech that should be allowed whether the gay-marriage message is popular in this particular Colorado Springs high school or not.

Look below to read Wallace's letter to District 49 superintendent Bradley Schoeppey, who oversees Falcon High, as well as the aforementioned press release, which includes information about a student petition in support of Cohn:

ACLU Demands Colorado Springs Area High School Rescind Its Prohibition against Apparel Promoting LGBT Equality

In a letter to school administrators sent yesterday, the ACLU demanded that Falcon High School rescind its prohibition against a student wearing a t-shirt that reads: "marriage is so gay." Kate Cohn, a senior at Falcon High School, just east of Colorado Springs, wore the t-shirt to school on Election Day, November 2, 2010. Although her shirt caused no disturbance amongst students during her first class that morning, Falcon High School Principal Mark Carara viewed the shirt and immediately told Kate that she had to change it because it was offensive and violated the school's dress code banning apparel that is potentially disruptive to the academic environment. Later in the day, while speaking with Kate's parents, Principal Carara explained his ban of Kate's t-shirt by comparing the shirt to apparel that promotes drug or alcohol use. Administrators at District 49 have publicly ratified Principal Carara's decision to ban Kate's shirt.

"This is censorship plain and simple," said Rebecca T. Wallace, Staff Attorney for the ACLU. "Falcon High School administrators are censoring Kate Cohn's message of equality simply because they did not like what she has to say, but the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees students like Kate Cohn the right to peacefully and quietly display their political message, even when that message is unpopular. This is particularly true when there is no evidence that Kate's shirt caused or was likely to cause a disturbance within the school."

While the message on Kate's t-shirt elicited little response from students, the school's silencing of Kate's speech has caused quite a disruption. In a recent protest at school, several students donned sticky notes over their heart stating: "I support Kate Cohn" or "I do not support gay marriage, but I support Kate Cohn." Additionally, 81 students have signed a letter protesting the school's silencing of Kate's message.

According to the ACLU's letter, Kate wore the "marriage is so gay" t-shirt to make a silent, peaceful, political statement in support of the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. "Every day that passes during which Falcon High School forbids Kate to speak on this issue of great political import that rests close to her heart, Kate suffers a significant loss of her First Amendment freedoms," explains Wallace. The ACLU has demanded that Falcon High School rescind its ban of Kate's message by the end of this week.

More from our News archive: "ACLU files claim against ICE for harassing U.S. citizens en route to Amway convention."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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