KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The battle over a gay-rights T-shirt stretched beyond the southwest Missouri town where it started and reached federal court on Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Kansas City on behalf of Brad Mathewson, a junior at Webb City High School, and asked for a preliminary injunction against the school. The lawsuit argues that Mathewson has been denied his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and should be allowed to wear gay-pride shirts.
The lawsuit was filed against the Webb City School District and high school principal Stephen Gollhofer.
“This has got nothing to do with money or attention,” Mathewson said. “I just want to wear my shirt.”
Mathewson, who is gay, was instructed twice in October by Webb City High School officials to conceal the gay-pride themes on his shirt or change shirts.
Ron Lankford, superintendent of the Webb City School District, said Tuesday afternoon that he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit and couldn’t discuss specific charges. He said, however, that the school’s actions were not about freedom of speech but about interpreting the school’s strict dress code.
“To me, it’s a matter of running a good school district,” Lankford said. “It’s about maintaining a non-disruptive teaching environment.”
The school’s dress code prohibits attire that is “indecent, disruptive, distracting or inappropriate for the classroom.” Lankford said the school district plans to fight the lawsuit and can prove that the T-shirts have been disruptive.
“We can substantiate the adverse effect of the situation,” he said.
Both the lawsuit and Mathewson said there have been no disruptions, and that other students at the school had been permitted to express political and religious viewpoints. One student, the lawsuit says, wore a shirt that said “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and wasn’t disciplined.
Mathewson and the ACLU announced the lawsuit at a news conference in Joplin.