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ACLU fights for LGBTQ students’ free speech rights in lawsuit against school district

Minarets High School, nestled in the Madera County foothills in Oneals, began classes for freshmen last September and will continue to add phase in additional classes over the next three years. Most students at the school are FFA members and work in their various programs. (Craig Kohlruss/ckohlruss@fresnobee.com)
Minarets High School, nestled in the Madera County foothills in Oneals, began classes for freshmen last September and will continue to add phase in additional classes over the next three years. Most students at the school are FFA members and work in their various programs. (Craig Kohlruss/ckohlruss@fresnobee.com) ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California is suing Chawanakee Unified School District on behalf of two Minarets High School seniors for the alleged censorship of their LGBTQ identities.

ACLU filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in Madera County Superior Court and claims the district and Minarets High in O’Neals violated the free speech rights of two students and their right to be free of anti-LGBTQ bias in California schools when they removed their submitted quotes from the yearbook.

Last December, Mikayla Garaffa and Steven Madrid submitted the quotes they wanted to appear on their personalized section of the yearbook. Both quotes expressed support for the LGBTQ community, as well as the fact that they identified with the community.

Their quotes initially were denied inclusion in the yearbook.

According to court documents filed by the ACLU, Minarets yearbook adviser Juan Ortiz justified the decision due to the quotes being “politically divisive.” Ortiz and Minarets High Principal Daniel Ching are the only two individuals named in the complaint.

“Politically divisive quotes or sayings” are one of the five reasons a quote can be pulled from the yearbook, according to a Jan. 14 email from Ortiz referenced in court documents.

“Sexuality can be a divisive topic in school as well as the community. I feel that putting a quote like this would only cause unnecessary issues,” Ortiz said in that same January email.

District reverses, will allow quotes

Darren Sylvia, superintendent of Chawanakee Unified School District, said the district administration decided to reverse the original decision in February and include the quotes, although he was unsure if either the parents or the students had been notified. Although the lawsuit led him to “draw a conclusion that (notification) didn’t take place.”

“Originally they were informed that their quotes were a violation of our areas of concern. But after further looking them over, the yearbook editor was informed that the quotes were not in violation of any of them,” Sylvia said.

Sylvia said if the school and district were in violation of anything discriminatory during all of this, he hopes this can help make sure it never happens again.

In the court documents, the plaintiffs argue that those “areas of concern” are both unclear and inconsistent.

The students cited examples of former students’ quotes in which former students used their quotes to identify with Christianity or a political party and were never censored. Garaffa and Madrid also argued that they had never heard of the guidelines for quotes that Ortiz had laid out. They said the only rule listed on the Google form required quotes no be “inappropriate” but did not elaborate.

“I believe my existence should not be looked at differently because of who I may love,” Madrid said of his quote. “I wanted to express something about myself in the same way that other students express essential things about themselves on their yearbook pages. There is no excuse for discriminating against students based on our personal views.”

The plaintiffs are seeking statutory damages, as well as court orders that would ensure this form of censorship doesn’t happen again in the future and to ensure there is no retaliation from the school against Garaffa and Madrid, according to the complaint.

The Quotes

Madrid’s quote was originally said by pop artist P!nk: “I think that the best day will be when we no longer talk about being gay or straight -- it’s not a ‘gay wedding,’ it’s just a ‘wedding’. It’s not a ‘gay marriage,’ it’s just ‘a marriage.’ ”

Garaffa’s quote is of unknown origin: “If Harry Potter has taught us anything, it’s that no one deserves to live in a closet. What they don’t know can’t hurt them.”

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