Witt, DOD reach settlement in DADT case

Major Margaret Witt

DOD agrees to allow major to retire with full benefits; DOJ won’t appeal her 9th Circuit victory

LISA KEEN | Keen News Service
lisakeen@me.com

The ACLU of Washington State announced Tuesday, May 10, that Air Force Reserve nurse Margaret Witt has reached a final settlement with the Department of Defense in her highly publicized litigation to avoid discharge under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

According to an ACLU press release, the DOD has agreed to allow Witt to retire with full benefits and the Department of Justice will drop its appeal of a federal district court ruling in her favor.

Last September, Judge Ronald Leighton of the U.S. District Court for Western Washington ruled that Witt’s sexual orientation did not negatively impact her unit’s morale or unit cohesion and that her discharge under DADT violated her Fifth Amendment right to due process.

“I am proud to have played a role in bringing about the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Witt said in a statement released by the ACLU. “I am so pleased that the tens of thousands of lesbians and gays who have served their country honorably will be able to serve openly.”

The Witt v. U.S. case has been a high-profile one, and the subject of debate on the floor of the Senate and in the confirmation hearing of the U.S. Supreme Court’s newest member, Elena Kagan. It was just one of several cases that applied pressure to Congress to repeal DADT before a federal court ordered it to do so immediately.

After several failed attempts, Congress did pass legislation to repeal DADT and President Obama signed it last December. DOD officials said earlier this year they expect to satisfy a necessary certification requirement — certifying that repeal can take place without affecting military readiness — about mid-summer this year.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has been working to pass repeal, congratulated Witt and the ACLU on their “stunning victory.”

“Today’s events underscore once again the unjust nature of this discriminatory chapter in American history,” SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said in a written statement. “Her case established a new rule of law in the Ninth Circuit, and her voice and story were pivotal in building support for the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This is not just a victory for Major Witt, it’s a victory for justice and for service members everywhere.”

Witt, 46, joined the Air Force in 1987 and moved quickly up the ranks, becoming a major in 1999, working with a unit that provided airborne intensive care units for wounded military personnel.

She received a number of commendations and even appeared on a recruitment poster.

Witt was discharged in 2006 for having acknowledged she had a relationship with a woman in Tacoma where Witt was based.

In the initial round of her lawsuit, she won — at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals level— the right to a trial on the merits of her individual discharge under DADT.

During Witt’s trial, DOJ attorneys put on witnesses to discuss Witt’s relationship with a married civilian woman and argued that it was not just Witt’s sexual orientation but also her adulterous behavior to blame for her discharge. The government also noted that Witt had told at least two colleagues she was gay, thus putting them in an awkward position of either keeping silent to protect her or informing superior officers of Witt’s being in violation of the DADT law.

© 2011 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

ACLU: Fort Worth’s Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD agrees to stop filtering LGBT web content

We’ve told you repeatedly (here, here and here) about the ACLU’s recent efforts to get districts in Texas to stop illegally filtering online LGBT content on school computers. This week, the ACLU of Texas reported that two districts have complied with its requests: Baytown’s Goose Creek ISD and Fort Worth’s Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD.

According to the ACLU, Goose Creek was using web filtering software that blocked sites of “Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest,” and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw was using one that blocked “education.lifestyles.”

Both districts have agreed to remove the filters, and the ACLU says it is investigating several other districts in Texas — but apparently not DISD.

“No student should be denied access to legitimate information, and Goose Creek and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school officials should be commended for doing the right thing and taking prompt action to restore that access,” Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a press release. “All schools should ensure that their web filters are configured to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”

The above video explains how to test whether your school is illegally filtering content, and you can fill out a complaint form by going here.

 

—  John Wright

Flour Bluff High School GSA to hold inaugural meeting on Day of Silence

Bianca “Nikki” Peet accepts her GLAAD Special Recognition Award from actress Kirsten Dunst on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Great news on the eve of the Day of Silence.

Nearly two months after the Flour Bluff Independent School District made national news by refusing to allow a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance, the GSA will meet on Friday for the first time, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports tonight.

After the district denied 17-year-old student Bianca “Nikki” Peet’s application to start the GSA, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action and hundreds of LGBT advocates rallied outside Flour Bluff High School.

The district revised its policies to allow the GSA, but then the group’s faculty sponsor reportedly backed out due to the controversy. Under the new policies, Flour Bluff Principal James Crenshaw will monitor the group’s meetings. The ACLU of Texas says it will also continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the GSA receives equal access.

Peet, 17, was honored by GLAAD for her efforts to start the GSA on Sunday in Los Angeles. She was also was named one of The Advocate magazine’s Forty Under 40. Below is video of Peet accepting her GLAAD Special Recognition Award from actress Kirsten Dunst.

—  John Wright

The fabric of our lives

T-shirts may be the front line in the battle for LGBT civil rights, or at least the battle’s billboards

LESLIE ROBINSON  |  General Gayety

We Americans like to express ourselves with our chests. I’m not speaking of Jane Russell or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m talking about our proclivity for wearing T-shirts with slogans on them.

Americans have been human billboards for decades.

The slogans on T-shirts celebrate, advocate, advertise, unify, decry and polarize. Americans have lots to say — on shirts made in Honduras.

So it makes sense that one part of the gay story in this country is being played out in cotton/polyester blends.

Over the past years high school students and younger — kids on both sides of the gay issue — have been wearing their hearts on their sleeves. And getting sent home for it.

The latest shirt-skirmish is still unfolding at a middle school in DeSoto Parish in Louisiana. Student Dawn Henderson wore a shirt reading “Some Kids are Gay. That’s OK.” Principal Keith Simmons ordered her to change her shirt or go home.

It occurs to me that any kid aiming to get out of a test at school doesn’t need to fake the flu; just don a controversial T-shirt and in minutes you’ll be back home watching Judge Judy.

According to the ACLU of Louisiana, DeSoto school officials claimed the shirt was “distracting.” The ACLU sent Simmons a letter arguing that Henderson has a First Amendment right to express her opinion across her chest, as long as the school allows clothing with slogans.

If the school decides to forbid clothing with slogans, it might be hearing from Nike.

In another T-shirt to-do, which actually began back in 2006, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a month ago that students at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., could wear T-shirts saying “Be Happy, Not Gay.” The court maintained a “school that permits advocacy of the rights of homosexual students cannot be allowed to stifle criticism of homosexuality.”

May the judges’ T-shirts ride up with wear.

On Nov. 2 last year, Election Day, senior Kate Cohn made a pro-gay statement at Falcon High School in Peyton, Colo., by wearing a shirt reading “Marriage is so gay.” She said Principal Mark Carara told her the shirt was offensive and violated the dress code forbidding clothing potentially disruptive to the academic environment.

I’m guessing that means fishnets are out. At least for guys.

Cohn’s mom said Carara later likened the T-shirt to apparel promoting alcohol or drug use.

That increasingly well-known arbiter of fashion, the ACLU, sent a letter to school administrators demanding Cohn and others be allowed to wear the shirt, and the two-week ban was lifted.

Perfect. Two weeks gave her enough time to wash her shirt and make it all pretty for its re-debut.

I can say with certainty that T-shirt tizzies haven’t been limited to the younger set or the recent past. Back in the mid-’90s I covered a protest by adults in Hampton Beach, N.H., outside a T-shirt store that peddled a couple of anti-gay shirts. One read “Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks,” and the other said “Aids Kills Fags” — or something of that ilk.

What I remember best is a teenager pointedly buying one of those shirts during the protest, then sheepishly returning it afterwards because he needed the money to get home.

The other day I spotted a different T-shirt twist to the American LGBT story. Openly gay veteran political consultant Fred Karger, in Washington, D.C., to file for the Republican presidential nomination, met with the Republican National Committee chairman.

Karger — completely unknown to the public and, to repeat, openly gay — told Roll Call, “We had a great meeting. I gave him one of my T-shirts.”

I’d like to know what slogan is on that shirt. Maybe “Karger 2012: No, Really.”

Leslie Robinson still has a pro-ERA T-shirt that her mother gave her. E-mail Leslie at lesarobinson@gmail.com, and check out her blog at GeneralGayety.com.

—  John Wright

If you can’t read this post at school, your district may be illegally filtering LGBT content

If your school district is illegally filtering LGBT content, you probably can’t read this post — at least not from a district computer. So, you’ll just have to read it at home and take notes so you can check tomorrow when you’re at school or work. Ready?

Earlier today we posted a story from the Associated Press about how the American Civil Liberties Union is demanding that school districts stop filtering LGBT web content in violation of federal law. As the story notes, Texas is one of a handful of states where the ACLU sent letters to school districts requesting information about web filtering. We inquired of the ACLU as to which districts in Texas received requests, but we haven’t heard back. A few years ago, according to Lambda Legal, the Dallas Independent School District agreed to allow access to web sites that were blocked at the time, including those belonging to Youth First Texas and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). DallasVoice.com was also among the sites DISD had blocked.

On Tuesday we contacted Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for DISD, and sent him a copy of the press release from the ACLU. Dahlander responded by saying that he had not seen any request from the ACLU, although he added that it may have gone to the district’s technology department. He also pointed us to the district’s policy on web filtering:

Each District computer with Internet access shall have a filtering device or software that blocks access to visual depictions that are obscene, pornographic, inappropriate for students, or harmful to minors, as defined by the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act and as determined by the Superintendent of Schools or designee. Every computer shall have a filter device or software that protects against viruses.

Because the DISD policy seems open to interpretation, we asked Dahlander to check whether the following sites are accessible from DISD computers. He said he did so and confirmed that all of them are accessible:

www.dayofsilence.org
www.itgetsbetter.org
www.thetrevorproject.org
www.gsanetwork.org
www.glsen.org
www.dallasvoice.com

Note that these are the same sites, with the exception of DallasVoice.com, that the ACLU recommends checking to determine whether your district is illegally filtering LGBT content. For more, watch the video above. If any of the LGBT sites are blocked,the ACLU recommends that you check the following anti-LGBT sites to see whether they’re also blocked:

www.NARTH.com
www.peoplecanchange.com
www.pfox.org

Dahlander said the three anti-LGBT sites are also accessible from DISD computers, which is a little scary, but hey, free speech is free speech.

Still, DISD is just one of hundreds of school districts in Texas. So if you think your district may be illegally filtering LGBT content on its computers, you can fill out the ACLU’s form by going here.

—  John Wright

TX Senate committee hears emotional testimony from parents of bullying suicide victims

Sen. Wendy Davis, who’s worked for two years with Equality Texas to craft a comprehensive anti-bullying law, introduced the bill in the Senate Education Committee this morning.

Davis told the committee that one in five students report being bullying on school grounds. Among the highlights of the bill, Davis explained, are that it would allow the victims of bullying to remain anonymous, it would expand the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying, and it would allow school officials to transfer the bully, rather than just the victim, to another class or school. Notification of parents is required, but principals could withhold notification of parents if a victim’s safety were at risk.

Committee Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, asked, “How can bullying be proven?”

Davis answered that this is covered by the expanded definition of bullying and by equipping teachers with the tools to identify bullying behavior.

“So children can feel safe in their educational environment,” Davis said.

Shapiro responded, “So bullying is just in the eyes of the beholder?”

Four people lined up to testify during the morning session including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Texas, The Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

Only two spoke before the committee adjourned for a Senate floor session. The Hogg Foundation spoke in favor of the bill and the ACLU against.

Testimony, including from the parents of three bullying victims who committed suicide, continued this afternoon.

Amy Truong, Asher Brown’s mother, spoke first. Wednesday will be the six-month anniversary of Asher’s death. Her testimony was so powerful that Jon Carmichael’s mother, who was schedule to speak next, left the room in tears. Instead, Jon’s sister spoke.

Montana Lance’s parents both testified before the committee. His father said that when Montana went to teachers or administrators, they told him not to be a tattletale. Jason Lance said he called the school and followed up every time he knew his son was bullied. Deborah Lance, his mother, said her son was simply overcome by bullying before he went into the nurse’s bathroom and hung himself. She said that in a year, four children in Texas have taken their own lives because of bullying. If legislators don’t act, they can expect another eight to commit suicide before they meet again.

Davis spoke and was in tears. Shapiro offered her sorrow to each of the parents on behalf of the committee, where the bill was left pending.

For more information on members of the Senate Education Committee, go here. A companion bill is also pending in the House education committee.

—  David Taffet

Polis, Franken tell bullies to ‘pick on someone your own size’ as they introduce SNDA

Rep. Jared Polis, left, and Sen. Al Franken today introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act that would protect LGBT students from discrimination and harassment.

As President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a group of students, parents, teachers and other concerned citizens — including Fort Worth’s own Joel Burns — at the White House today, Openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced identical bills, called the Student Non-Discrimination Act, in the House and the Senate that would protect students from discrimination and harassment based on “actual or percieved sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In an e-mail announcing the proposed legislation, Polis cited recent efforts by school officials in Flour Bluff High School, near Corpus Christi, to prevent a gay-straight alliance from meeting on school grounds.

“It’s bad enough when a school turns a blind eye to bullying. But when a school district in Texas moved to ban all extracurricular clubs in order to avoid having to approve a Gay-Straight Alliance, it really crossed the line,” Polis said in the e-mail. “The school itself became the bully.”

He added, “Our message is clear: Pick on somebody your own size.”

Polis acknowledged that “the odds of this bill passing this session are uncertain” because some Republicans, “regardless of their personal beliefs, are reluctant to vote for LGBT-friendly legislation.

“But, even though the odds are against me, I can’t stay silent in the face of bullying — especially when the people who are supposed to protect students from bullying have become the bullies themselves,” Polis said, encouraging individuals to become “citizen sponsors” by adding their name as a supporter here.

The ACLU has quickly come out in support of the legislation, with ACLU legislative representative Ian Thompson saying that the legislation could have “a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in our schools.”

Thompson pointed to the numerous LGBT teens who committed suicde after being bullied relentlessly in the late summer and fall of 2010 as evidence of the need for the legislation. Seth Walsh, 13, was one of those teens, and his mother, Wendy Walsh, is an ACLU client. She, too, weigh in today on the need for the SNDA.

“I can’t bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone,” said Wendy Walsh, who was also among those attending the White House Conference on Bullying.

In a written statement released after the SNDA was introduced, ACLU officials pointed out that while federal laws currently protect students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, no federal statute explicitly protects students on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The SNDA, like Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the various disability civil rights statutes, is not simply legislation that would remedy discrimination after it occurs, but instead would also have the important impact of preventing discrimination from occurring,” the ACLU statement said.

To read the ACLU’s statement in support of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, go here. To see video of Wendy Walsh telling her son’s story, go here.

—  admin

Flour Bluff ISD will allow GSA and other groups on campus — at least for now

Trustees for Flour Bluff High Independent School District approved a resolution late Tuesday night to allow a proposed Gay-Straight Alliance — along with other non-curricular groups — to meet on the school campus, at least temporarily, according to KRISTV, the NBC station in Corpus Christi.

The vote allows the the groups, including a GSA, to meet while the district conducts a study before making a permanent decision. The vote came after nearly five hours, about four of which the trustees spent in a closed executive session discussing the situation.

The decision came after the ACLU threatened legal action against the Flour Bluff High School, where school officials had refused to allow student Nikki Peet to form the GSA, although other groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, were allowed to meet on campus. School officials then banned all groups to avoid having to allow the GSA.

Nikki Peet was not able to attend the meeting because she is in the hospital being treated for an infection. But her mother, Maria Peet, and other family members were there to speak for her. Members of the GSA at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi — to whom Nikki Peet had appealed for help — also attended the school board meeting.

Jay Raymond with the TAMU-CC group said his group would be there to “see this through,” and pledged, “There is no chance of this dying down until what we want is what we get.”

—  admin

ACLU threatens to sue Corpus Christi school district for refusing to allow Gay Straight Alliance

The ACLU is demanding that Flour Bluff ISD officials allow a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi or face legal action.

The principal of Flour Bluff High School has refused to allow the GSA proposed by student Nikki Peet, and the district superintendent has threatened to eliminate all non-curricular clubs to avoid allowing the GSA.

The ACLU, which is representing Peet, says the district is in violation of the federal Equal Access Act because it has allowed other non-curricular clubs — including the chess club; the Key Club; the Family, Careers, Community Leaders of America; and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — to meet on campus.

“Because Flour Bluff High has opened the door to non-curricular clubs on campus, it is required by law to permit the GSA club,” the ACLU writes in its letter dated today.

The ACLU also maintains that it’s illegal for the district to eliminate all non-curricular clubs to avoid allowing the GSA.

“Recently, a federal court in Mississippi held that when the school district canceled the prom in response to a student’s request to bring a same-sex date, the district violated the student’s First Amendment rights,” the ACLU said. “The proposed action by the District here is no different than the cancellation of the prom that the court held in McMillen to be unconstitutional.”

The ACLU gives the district until March 9 to respond.

“If you refuse to comply with your obligations under the EAA and the First Amendment, we will take whatever steps necessary to protect the rights of our client, Ms. Peet,” the letter states.

Read the ACLU’s letter here.

As we reported earlier, a protest is planned outside Flour Bluff High School on Friday.

—  John Wright

Removal of sexual orientation doesn’t stop bigots — or the ACLU — from opposing anti-bullying bill

Jonathan Saenz

The removal of sexual orientation from an anti-bullying bill didn’t stop anti-gay groups from opposing the measure during a Texas House committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affiars for the Plano-based Liberty Institute, told the House public education committee that even though sexual orientation and other enumerated categories were removed from Rep. Mark Strama’s HB 224, Saenz fears the categories will be restored to the measure at some point.

“It is about the gay rights, the homosexual community, the transgender community, and an effort to create special categories and special rights in our law that don’t currently exist, and really carve off protections for some groups and not others,” Saenz told the committee. “It’s not about bullying, and it’s not about solving this problem. It’s about creating new classes of people and giving special protections to some categories and not others.”

Strama said during the hearing that he has no plans to restore the enumerated categories to the bill.

“We took all those classes out so we wouldn’t have to have this discusssion,” said Strama, D-Austin. “It’s not my intention to put any of that list back in the bill. At this point I’d like to keep it the way it is if we can get this bill moving through the process.”

Representatives from Equality Texas, which supports the bill and testified in favor of it on Tuesday, have said the enumerated categories were removed to improve the bill’s chances of passage and de-politicize the issue.

Also testifying against Strama’s bill were both the anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum and the normally pro-equality American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU representatives say Strama’s bill, which would allow school officials to crack down on cyberbullying that occurs off campus, creates concerns about free speech and parental rights.

The bill was left pending in the education committee. To watch video of the committee hearing, go here.

—  John Wright