December 1, 2022
GLAD Attorney Chris Erchull, Morgan Nighan (Nixon Peabody), Gilles Bissonnette (ACLU New Hampshire), and plaintiffs challenging New Hampshire’s School Censorship Law, Andres Mejia and Tina Kim Philibotte
Photo credit: New Hampshire Bulletin
Our public schools have a responsibility to provide a safe school environment where all students can engage with learning and fully benefit from their educational opportunities. But increasingly across the country, schools are being pressured to violate that most basic trust – and students themselves are becoming political targets.
In the past year, we’ve seen escalating efforts to censor teaching about American history and race, to silence discussions of LGBTQ+ people and families in classrooms, and to ban books – many by LGBTQ+ authors and with LGBTQ+ themes – from school and public libraries. Equally concerning, as LGBTQ+ issues are weaponized for political gain, school districts are being pressured to dilute or abandon policies that have improved access to education for LGBTQ+ students.
We also continue to see dangerous bills introduced in states across the country. These bills would force schools to out LGBTQ+ students before they are ready, deny transgender students access to restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender, and ban transgender girls from playing school sports with their friends. GLAD has been fighting these kinds of efforts in New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island. The next session is likely to be even worse in states in New England and across the country.
Our 2022 Spirit of Justice Honoree, Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith, has led the fight against perhaps the most notorious law targeting schools and students, the so-called “Don’t Say LGBTQ+” law in Florida.
The law went into effect this school year, and unsurprisingly, we are already experiencing the harmful impacts. Complaints in the two legal challenges to the law, brought by Equality Florida, NCLR, and Lambda Legal, provide many chilling examples: At least one teacher was already fired after her students drew Pride flags. LGBTQ+ books have been taken out of some school libraries. Teachers have removed stickers, flags, and other signs of support from their classrooms. Students are afraid that faculty will shut down their LGBTQ+ school groups, and teachers and staff won’t be able to do anything about bullying and harassment.
Challenging New Hampshire’s School Censorship Law
Florida isn’t the only state where such legislation has gone into effect. GLAD is challenging a law passed in New Hampshire last year that explicitly discourages teachers from discussing race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the classroom. Our partners are the ACLU-NH, Disability Rights Center – NH, and the National Educators Association – NH chapter.
We represent the NEA-NH and two school administrators, Andres Mejia, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice for the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, and Christina Kim Philibotte, Chief Equity Officer for the Manchester School District. Our suit argues that the law is deliberately vague and has created a chilling effect on what teachers can say and teach in schools.
“We have dedicated our careers to creating an educational community where every student—including Black and Brown students, students of color, students from the LGBTQAI+ community, students with disabilities, and students from other historically marginalized identities—feel like they belong,” Mejia and Philibotte said when filing the lawsuit. “This law chills the very type of diversity, equity, and inclusion work that is absolutely necessary to ensure that each student is seen, heard, and connected, especially as New Hampshire becomes more diverse.”
Teachers, who have to guess at what crosses the line, face severe consequences if they violate the statute, including the possibility of individual lawsuits brought against them and the loss of their teaching license. GLAD Attorney Chris Erchull says it’s not surprising that educators are confused by the law and choose to steer clear of the topics it mentions, to the detriment of students.
“I’ve heard from teachers who have, for example, taken down LGBTQ+ welcoming signs from their classrooms because of the law,” says Erchull. “The result is teachers are afraid, students feel less supported, and everyone is missing out on learning about vital issues in the world they live in and will contribute to as adults.”
The case is proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire. We expect a ruling from the court soon on the State’s motion to dismiss our case, which was argued in September.
Protecting LGBTQ+ Supportive School Policies
As an energized far-right stirs up fears about how public schools teach our children, lawsuits challenging LGBTQ+ supportive school policies – policies that years of research show create better outcomes for all students – are also rising.
In October, GLAD filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Massachusetts Superintendents Association and GLAD in support of a Ludlow public school. The case involves actions taken by teachers and staff to support the well-being of two students, including using the students’ requested names and pronouns and waiting to discuss their gender expression at school with parents until the students themselves were ready to do so. By affirming and supporting students this way, the school was meeting its obligation to provide a safe and equal educational environment for all students. The school district’s motion to dismiss the parents’ case was argued before the U.S. District Court in Springfield on October 17.
Our laws and schools protect children’s safety and support equal educational opportunity so students can learn and grow in ways that lead to healthy participation in our communities as adults. GLAD will continue to challenge these attacks on LGBTQ+ students in the courts and in statehouses. And we will continue to advocate for positive, inclusive school policies that allow all students the opportunity to thrive and the freedom to learn.
Check out the community conversation with GLAD, Equality Florida, and others about anti-LGBTQ+ school legislation and policies and how advocates, parents, and students are challenging them.