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WV State Board of Education should clarify signs supporting LGBTQ+ students are not political


WV State Board of Education should clarify signs supporting LGBTQ+ students are not political

Sep 15, 2023 | 5:57 am ET
By Eli Baumwell
WV State Board of Education should clarify signs supporting LGBTQ+ students are not political
Wendy Fife, a math teacher at Hurricane High School, brought to the Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, Putnam County Board of Education meeting one of the posters she was instructed to take down. Fife said the signage is important for students who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or identity but don’t have a support network at home. (Kyle Vass | ACLU-WV)

What makes an issue “political?” What makes it “divisive?”

The answer impacts the free speech rights of thousands of West Virginians. 

Teachers, like students, do not lose their First Amendment protections when they enter a school. This is a right the ACLU is proud to have protected for more than 70 years. However, there are some limitations. Notably, teachers are prohibited from “political” expression in the course of their job. 

The ACLU has long advocated that this exception to basic rights needs to be narrow; that the term political means taking a specific position for or against a political candidate/party or a stance on a legislative item or ballot measure.

Beyond that, it is not for anyone to arbitrarily determine what speech is “political” in nature. Groups that choose to make certain topics controversial can’t simply wave their wand and determine that a point of view is now “political speech.”

Unfortunately, schools are now being forced to decide just what that means by a handful of vocal extremists, propped up by a political machine built on hate and fear.

In 2022, the Monongalia County Board of Education banned signage indicating support and inclusion for LGBTQ+ students. Earlier this month, Putnam County Board of Education members upheld that the prohibition of literature supporting “political candidates, issues, or a particular point of view; commercial literature; and other non-school related literature” to tell teachers they couldn’t have signs supportive of LGBTQ+ people up in their classrooms. For several years in a row, legislation has been introduced that would ban “divisive” signage.

Of course, politicians — eager to stoke culture wars to win elections — love to pick up items deemed controversial and insert them into politics. In 2023 alone, over 520 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in the country. This includes bills that prevent them from getting health care, that force them to be outed and to ban books that acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people. 

However, none of the signs or flags that are being banned from classrooms across the state contain language in favor or against politicians. They don’t advocate for or against certain bills and they certainly don’t make mention of political parties.

Instead, they offer support for the LGBTQ+ students who are regularly bullied and harassed. It’s no secret that school administrators often turn a blind eye to this bullying. In some cases, the teachers and administrators are the perpetrators.

The response from some educators was to ensure their students feel safe and supported. This isn’t only a teacher’s job, it’s the law — federal law requires schools to provide a safe and supportive learning environment.

And now those teachers and that support is also being called into question. The same people who have made LGBTQ+ rights political — the same people who have fostered derision — are now claiming that teachers are being too political in their support and signage. 

By choosing to make LGBTQ+ rights controversial, censorship activists (as they always have done) try to weaponize the state against their political opponents — not on the floor of any delegation or in a public forum, but rather by prohibiting the rights of teachers who openly identify as supportive of LGBTQ+ kids. 

Clamoring for a way to quell a vocal minority, board members take up the shield of policies designed to keep political influence out of schools.

Their argument is glaringly circular. Students are bullied and harassed based on their identity. Educators respond by singling that identity out as being accepted, safe and welcome. Legislation is created attacking that identity, and suddenly, the very existence of the identity becomes a political issue. Which fuels the argument that offering acceptance and inclusion is political. 

We should reject the argument on that basis alone. We cannot allow extremists to create a controversy and then use the existence of the controversy they created to prohibit protection of their targets.

But offering acceptance, inclusion and safety is not “political.” It is not political to acknowledge that some students are particularly vulnerable. It is not taking a position on a candidate, or a political party. It is not even taking a position on proposed legislation. It is simply telling students they are allowed to exist and to be themselves.

Boards of education have a responsibility to see this and to enforce their rules accordingly. 

Moreover, the State Board of Education should weigh in. The state board could clarify the issue by issuing guidance that such signage is not too political and too controversial. Doing this would create a clear statewide policy, rather than a patchwork of policies and controversies in 55 counties. And it would ensure that schools uphold the free speech rights of educators and the mandate to make sure all students are attending a supportive educational environment.