A federal district court judge ruled last week that a Michigan high school teacher violated a student’s free speech rights when he kicked the student out of class for voicing disapproval for homosexuality.
The ruling was perhaps a hollow victory for the student, Daniel Glowacki, though, because the judge assessed damages of just a single, solitary dollar.
The incident giving rise to the lawsuit happened in 2010 on national Anti-Bullying Day at Howell High School in Howell, Michigan.
The teacher, Johnson (“Jay”) McDowell got into a heated argument with student Daniel Glowacki in an economics class after Glowacki said he objected to homosexuality because he is Catholic.
Judge Patrick Duggan ruled that the First Amendment protects Glowacki’s speech.
As the judge notes in the first sentence of the opinion, the case is an example of the tension between anti-bullying policies in public schools and the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.
On October 20, 2010, members of the Gay Straight Alliance had asked students and teachers to wear the color purple to celebrate Anti-Bullying Day at Howell High School in Howell, Michigan.
Some students wore purple. Some also wore clothing emblazoned with rainbow flags and other symbols in support of the Gay Straight Alliance.
McDowell, who wore purple that day, took time out of his sixth-hour economics class to talk to students about bullying and to show students an anti-bullying video.
McDowell also noticed a student wearing a Confederate flag belt buckle. He asked her to remove it.
According to the district court opinion, Daniel testified that he “calmly raised [his] hand” and asked McDowell why one student couldn’t wear a Confederate flag belt but other students and teachers could wear purple shirts and display rainbow flags.
McDowell told the student that there is a “difference in symbolism between the Confederate flag and the rainbow flag.” According to Daniel, the economics teacher explained that the Confederate flag represents “discrimination against blacks.”
Daniel observed that purple shirts discriminated against Catholics and said, “I don’t accept gays.”
McDowell told Daniel he couldn’t say that. Daniel then amended his statement. “I don’t accept gays because I’m Catholic,” he said.
McDowell, who admitted that he was angry by this time, then analogized that saying “I don’t accept gays” is the same as saying “I don’t accept blacks.”
The economics teacher then demanded to know if Daniel accepted gays or not.
When Daniel refused to recant, McDowell booted him “out of class and wrote up a referral for unacceptable behavior.”
Another student then said, “I don’t accept gays either” and asked to leave, which McDowell allowed.
The remaining students then demanded to know “why didn’t they have free speech.” According to the court, the high school economics teacher “explained that a student cannot voice an opinion that creates an uncomfortable learning environment for another student.”
The school district’s subsequent investigation came down squarely in favor of the students. The entire incident was expunged from Glowacki’s file. He was also placed in another economics class at the request of his family.
School district officials strongly reprimanded McDowell (though the teacher’s punishment was later reduced after he filed a grievance).
McDowell “disciplined two students for holding and stating personal beliefs, to which you disagree,” the original reprimand said. “You disciplined them in anger under the guise of harassment and bullying because you opposed their religious belief and were offended by it. The students were causing no disruption to the educational process.”
The reprimand also noted that it was ironic that McDowell punished students for having opinions he could not tolerate on Anti-Bullying Day.
The judge similarly found that McDowell has been “primarily motivated by his disagreement with Daniel’s opinion on homosexuality.”
Glowacki graduated in 2012, reports the Detroit Free Press.
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