An Upstate elementary schooler and her mother are challenging school officials in federal court after they said the student's school barred her from publishing an essay about her openly gay grandfather.
The assignment was to write an essay addressed to "society," according to a lawsuit filed March 6 in U.S. District Court. The finished essays would then be combined and sent home as a collection with fourth-graders at Anderson Mill Elementary School, which is a part of Spartanburg School District No. 6.
The 10-year-old, identified in the suit as "RRS," authored an essay advocating for equal and humane treatment of LGBTQ-identifying people, such as her grandfather, a former drag queen performer, said Columbia attorney Eric Poston, who is representing the student and her mother, Hannah Robertson, who both live in Spartanburg.
"While there are several forms of discrimination related to free speech rights, the court finds viewpoint-based discrimination to be especially egregious," Poston said in a statement. "When the government engages in viewpoint discrimination, as is the case here, it is restricting speech based solely on the speaker’s opinion or perspective on a particular subject matter."
In the complaint, both the mother and daughter were described as "proud advocates of LGBTQ rights."
"People think that men should not drees (sic) like a women ... saying means (sic) things," she wrote in her essay, according to the suit. "They think that they are choosing the wrong thing in life. ... I hope people understand that people can hurt themselves from others hurting their feelings. ... We need to fix this because this is getting out of hand!"
Anderson Mill Principal Elizabeth Foster, who is a named defendant in the suit, reviewed each of the essays and instructed the young girl's teacher that the paper would not be published by the school because "it was not an appropriate topic," according to the complaint. Instead, the student was instructed to rewrite her essay to center around "bullying" rather than LGBTQ inclusion.
Now, the family of the student contends that the young girl's First Amendment rights were violated when the school refused to publish the essay in its original form.
Poston also pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1969 landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which affirmed a public school student's free speech rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gate, provided their speech does not disrupt the educational process.
The school district on Wednesday rebutted the claims in the lawsuit.
"Spartanburg County School District Six takes strong issue with the lawsuit recently filed against the District, as well as the statement issued by the attorney who filed the lawsuit, which are replete with blatantly false statements and accusations. Our attorneys will file a response to the lawsuit and vigorously defend the district and Principal Elizabeth Foster. The District cannot comment on the specifics of the situation due to its obligation to comply with the federal and state laws to protect the student’s confidentiality and because of the pending litigation," Cynthia Robinson, district spokeswoman said in a statement. "However, the District wishes to make clear that it recognizes, respects, and protects the constitutional rights of all of its students. Additionally, the District does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity status, disability or age. The District maintains an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, parents, employees, and members of the community."
When the child's mother objected to school staff's instruction to revise the paper, according to complaint, the principal doubled down when speaking to Robertson and contended an essay defending the LGBTQ community would "make other parents upset" and that it was "not age-appropriate to discuss transgenders, lesbians and drag queens outside of the home."
Robertson declined an interview through her attorney.
"The grand irony of the situation is that, through the filing of this lawsuit, far more people are being exposed to this child’s message of love and equality than if Principal Foster had simply allowed it to be published alongside the other papers written by her classmates," Poston said.
Note: This story was revised to include an updated version of the school district's statement.