A Mississippi federal court ruled Tuesday that officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School violated a lesbian student’s First Amendment rights when it canceled the school prom rather than let the student attend with her girlfriend.
Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior, made national headlines when she sued the school district for the right to bring her girlfriend to the prom. School officials had told her she could not wear a tuxedo and had to bring a male date instead.
“It feels really good that the court realized that the school was violating my rights and discriminating against me by canceling the prom,” McMillen said in a statement. “All I ever wanted was for my school to treat me and my girlfriend like any other couple that wants to go to a prom.”
In the ruling the court wrote, “The record shows Constance has been openly gay since eighth grade and she intended to communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and to express her identity through attending prom with a same-sex date. The Court finds this expression and communication of her viewpoint is the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment.”
The federal court said the school board does not have to reschedule the dance because parents have already organized an alternative private prom that will be open to all students on April 2.
McMillen said she plans to attend the private prom as well as the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition’s Second Chance Prom, a dance open to all LGBT students in the state as well as straight students who are LGBT-supportive.
“Now we can all get back to things like picking out our prom night outfits and thinking about corsages,” said McMillen.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented McMillien in the case, hailed the ruling as “a win for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who just want to be able to be themselves at school without being treated unfairly.”
“Public schools can’t just stomp on students’ free expression rights just because they don’t want to deal with these students, and if schools do try to do that they’ll be dealing with us,” said Kristy Bennett, legal director for the Mississippi ACLU.
Christine P. Sun, senior counsel at the ACLU’s national LGBT Project who also represented McMillen, said, “These school officials should be ashamed of themselves for trying to scapegoat a young girl and then trying to lay the blame for their bad behavior at her feet.”
McMillen first approached school officials about bringing her girlfriend to the prom in December, and again in February. They said no.
The prom was canceled after the ACLU and supporters demanded the school board reverse its decision to prohibit McMillen from bringing her girlfriend. School officials told McMillen she could not arrive at the prom with her girlfriend and said they would be thrown out if other students complained about their presence.
Both the ACLU and the the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition say they deal with complaints every year from LGBT students all over Mississippi who face resistance from their schools about bringing same-sex dates to proms. Some students don’t feel safe going to their own proms, they note.
LGBT activists hope McMillen’s story sheds light on the problem and encourages school districts everywhere to accept students for who they are regardless of their sexual orientation.
About 715 students attend McMillen’s high school in the town of 4,000 in rural northern Mississippi.
Since McMillen’s case was filed, a Facebook page set up for her case has attracted over 400,000 supporters. McMillen was also a recent guest on the Ellen DeGeneres talk show and received a $30,000 university scholarship.
Photo: Constance McMillen with her father. Facebook/Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!