Chris Sigler, a 17-year-old student at Sequoyah High School in Madisonville, Tenn., tried to start a gay-straight alliance, but alleges he ended up being assaulted by the school principal for wearing a t-shirt in support of the proposed new club.
Chris is straight, but his 18-year-old sister Jessica is bisexual and has endured teasing and bullying at school. He told his family he wanted to start the GSA to provide support for gay students.
"I don't want to go to a funeral of any friends," he told his mother, Linda Sigler. The homemade t-shirt read: "GSA: We've Got Your Back."
But when he had a confrontation with Principal Maurice Moser last week, the high school senior was reportedly "shoved, bumped in the chest and verbally harassed" after he refused to take the shirt off in class, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has taken up his cause.
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The ACLU, in conjunction with the ACLU of Tennessee, sent a letter to the school district today demanding that students' rights to free speech be protected in the classroom.
They say that Chris' efforts to start a GSA have been thwarted by the school's administration and his free speech rights have been violated. The ACLU alleges that Moser had previously threatened to punish students who circulated petitions about the club.
"They first started to try to get the club back in August, two or three weeks into school," said his mother. "As far as the shirt, he wore it one day and kids called him things like 'queer' and 'fag,' saying making a shirt for gays isn't right."
Chris went to Moser for support, according to his mother, but the principal allegedly told him that the bullies "had freedom of opinion, too.'"
More than 150 students had signed petitions to allow a GSA club, according to the ACLU. Students around the country have reported similar stories.
Last Tuesday, a teacher told Sigler to cover up the shirt, but he resisted and wore it again on Friday. Moser ordered all the students out of the classroom, according to the Siglers, except for his sister Jessica, who refused to leave her brother.
Both students allege that Moser then grabbed Sigler's arm, shoved him and chest-bumped him repeatedly while asking "Who's the big man now?"
Linda Sigler said that when she arrived, Moser was leaning over Chris, "right in his face." The Siglers filed a report about the incident that afternoon with the Monroe County Sheriff's Department.
When ABCNews.com called Sequoyah High School, Moser's assistant referred reporters to the superintendent's office. That office referred the call to the district's lawyer, Chuck Cagle in Nashville. He didn't immediately return the call.
Chris was attending school today, but said in a statement provided by the ACLU, "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. The shirt was a way to use my voice and show my support for the club. The way I was treated shows even more why we need a GSA here."
An estimated 33 percent of LGBT students in Tennessee regularly heard school staff make homophobic remarks, according to research from the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Additionally, 1 in 4 LGBT students in that state were punched, kicked or injured with a weapon for because of their sexual orientation.
GLSEN also said that few comprehensive bullying and harassment policies were in place in Tennessee.
"School staff are entrusted with making the safety of every student a daily experience," GLSEN spokesman Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a statement. "We are deeply disturbed by the reported actions of the Sequoyah High School principal who bullied a student for their support of legally establishing a gay-straight-alliance."
"We know a gay-straight-alliance can provide a safe and affirming space in an environment that may be otherwise hostile," she said. "Denying students the right to form this group is not only unjust, but unwise as it promotes a culture of exclusion. And the principal's irresponsible actions only compound the problem."
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Students have been repeatedly told by Moser that the school does not have a GSA because they have been unable to find a faculty sponsor, according to Amanda Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project.
"There is a disturbing pattern where several teachers told the students they were interested, but when the kids go to the principal, they aren't any longer," she said.
Goad said she was "optimistic a lawsuit will not be necessary" now that the ACLU was talking with school officials about the legality of banning student free speech.
The Supreme Court affirmed first amendment rights for students in 1969 in the Tinker v. Des Moines decision. Three high school students defied their principal and wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.
The landmark decision ruled that, students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Since then, the court has narrowed that ruling, giving schools the right to censor speech to maintain order and protect students from harmful messages.
In 2007, in a high-profile case known as "Bongs for Jesus" the Supreme Court ruled in Morse v. Frederick that Alaska public school officials had not violated a student's free speech rights by punishing him for displaying a "cryptic" drug-themed banner during a public event. The court overturned a lower court decision that cited the 42-year-old Tinker case.
But the ACLU said the issue is about more than free speech.
"All students deserve a safe and respectful learning environment," said Goad. "Harassment, abuse or censorship of any student -- regardless of sexual orientation -- is absolutely reprehensible as well as illegal."
"We think students rights can be expressed on t-shirts and jewelry," said Goad. "If we had to sue, we would be vindicated."