Update May 2020: On May 20, the ACLU of Texas defended the free speech and LGBTQ rights of Wimberley parents and students at a special meeting held by the Wimberley Independent School District’s Board of Trustees. At the meeting, the Board of Trustees announced they will no longer be taking legal action against parents who display a rainbow Wimberley Texans logo, a symbol of solidarity with LGBTQ students. A recording of the meeting can be viewed via the school district’s YouTube channel.
As students and parents were enjoying time off during the holidays, school administrators at Wimberley Independent School District (WISD) were threatening legal action against a group of parents who expressed their support for LGBTQ students.
It all started when the city of Wimberley, Texas hosted its first Pride March last fall. Parents of LGBTQ students created a graphic combining the Wimberley High School Texans logo with a rainbow flag, the symbol of LGBTQ pride. Some parents then posted the image on Facebook and put it on t-shirts to express their support for LGBTQ students. Bryan Burke, a parent in the district, described it as an act that, “symbolizes a hug to those [LGBTQ] kids that hide in the shadows during their WISD experience out of fear. It lets them know they are just as important as any other child in the district.”
Instead of simply respecting the right to free speech, WISD decided to threaten legal action against these parents if they do not take down the image from their personal social media by a set deadline, January 6. But serious damage has already been done: Several parents have removed their posts from their accounts. Wimberley ISD is silencing their voices in a way that is not only wrong — it’s unconstitutional.
The First Amendment protects people’s right to express their views, including online and at public events like a Pride march. Government entities cannot chill their speech, retaliate against them, or discriminate based on the content of their speech. But now Wimberley ISD is doing just that.
For years, WISD’s Texans logo appears to have been used by others in the community without incident. Local businesses use the logo for their promotional signs; one company even sells t-shirts using the logo with the symbol of the Christian cross behind it. But it was not until parents started using the logo to support LGBTQ students that the school district felt compelled to try to stop it.
Although the school district claims to be protecting its copyrights and trademarks, it has no basis to silence the parents’ expression even under federal law. Transforming a logo to convey a political message falls squarely into what’s known as the “fair use” doctrine. This allows people to transform copyrighted material and use it in multiple ways, including for public criticism and comment, like if a climate protester altered an oil company’s logo to criticize its role in climate change.
Just because something is copyrighted or trademarked does not mean that no one else can ever use it — especially when it comes to expressing your opinions on political issues in person or online.
It appears that Wimberley ISD has lost sight of what is truly important here. Instead of listening to community members about the need to protect LGBTQ students, the district is wasting time and resources trying to silence parent voices. Indeed, they seem to have spent hours scanning social media in an effort to harass parents and police free expression online.
One of the biggest tragedies of this whole debacle is that the school district voted not to add any explicit protections for LGBTQ students to the district’s nondiscrimination policies in November 2019. Meanwhile, the stories from LGBTQ students and parents in Wimberley ISD who say that they face discrimination on a regular basis continue to echo through the community. This is consistent with heightened rates of discrimination and harassment faced by LGBTQ students across the state of Texas.
Now, the ACLU of Texas is responding. We recently sent the school district a letter urging them to immediately stop taking unlawful actions against Wimberley parents. Though Wimberley ISD claims to be a school district that “empowers ALL students,” it needs to start with respecting everyone’s First Amendment rights and doing what it can to ensure that the district is free from harassment and discrimination.
If you know of a student or parent who is similarly being harassed due to their expression of free speech or because of who they are, reach out to us. The ACLU of Texas also has a hub of resources dedicated to promoting students’ rights in schools.