Civil rights activists are demanding a criminal investigation into an allegation that a Tennessee high school principal assaulted a student for wearing a T-shirt advocating a gay-straight alliance.
The incident allegedly occurred Sept. 30 at Sequoyah High School in Tennessee’s Monroe County School District.
Witnesses say principal Maurice Moser emptied a classroom of all students but Chris Sigler and his sister Jessica. The principal then allegedly shoved, bumped and grabbed Sigler, shouting, “Who’s the big man now?”
Moser, according to the American Civil Liberties Union attorneys who are representing Sigler, was angry over a homemade T-shirt the student was wearing.
The T-shirt slogan stated, “SQHS” on the front and “GSA: We’ve got your back” on the back. Sigler and other students, with the assistance of the ACLU, were working to establish a GSA club at the school.
Sigler had worn the T-shirt previously and reported that other students called him names, a complaint that the school administration had dismissed.
“All I want is to have a GSA at my school to help stop the bullying against gays and lesbians and their friends who support them,” Sigler said. “The shirt was a way to use my voice and show my support for the club.”
A teacher’s complaint about the T-shirt, however, prompted Moser to call Sigler into his office. There, the principal instructed the student to take off the T-shirt or leave the school grounds.
Sigler, instead, went to his fourth period economics class, where Moser allegedly assaulted him.
The ACLU, in a letter to school district officials, demanded that the school district issue a statement guaranteeing students can wear expressive clothing “free from threats of discipline or physical intimidation.” The ACLU also demanded that Stigler be permitted to take an economics test he missed on Sept. 30, that his absence from school not be counted on his attendance record and that he not “be subject to any further punishment or retribution.”
The attorneys cited the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, along with protections in the Tennessee Constitution. They noted that while Sigler was ejected from school for wearing a GSA T-shirt, students walk the halls in shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag.
“It is totally unacceptable that a young man who was peacefully exercising his First Amendment rights would have his speech shut down by the public school principal,” said ACLU of Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg. The incident, she said, “clearly illustrates the hostile environment LGBT students face at Sequoyah High School.”
ACLU attorney Amanda Goad called Moser’s actions “absolutely reprehensible as well as illegal.”
She called for a fair and quick police investigation.
Petitioners with a Gay-Straight Alliance Network and Tennessee Equality Project online campaign also are demanding a criminal investigation, either by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department or the Madisonville Police Department. Within days of posting a petition at Change.org, the campaign had more than 80,000 signers.