The Prom-ise of Justice
Students in our nation's public schools have a long history of leading the efforts to identify, expand, and secure fundamental rights and liberties. In the latest chapter of this glorious tradition, Constance McMillen filed suit (with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union) against her Mississippi public school when officials there refused to allow her to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend to the Junior/Senior prom.
Constance is a senior at Itwamba Agricultural High School and has been looking forward to attending the prom for years. Like many other students, she hoped to attend the prom with her partner, but her school has a policy that states that "guests" of individuals must be of the opposite sex.
The school claims that the policy was established to prevent friends from buying tickets together solely to benefit from the reduced rate (tickets are $35 per person, but it only costs $10 to bring a guest). However, when Constance requested to bring someone of the same sex as a date, the school refused to allow it. They also refused to allow her to wear a tuxedo. And, when Constance threatened a First Amendment suit against the school, they decided to cancel the prom altogether, rather than accommodate her requests.
The law suit, Constance McMillan v. Itawamba County School District was heard in the federal court in Northern District of Mississippi. On Monday March 22nd, Judge Glen H. Davidson issued a preliminary ruling that the school did, in fact, violate Constance's First Amendment right to freedom of expression. The ruling stated, "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 Judge did not, however, require the school to reinstate the prom, which was scheduled to take place on April 2nd, 2010. He felt that the "private" prom that parents and community groups had planned to replace the cancelled event served the needs of the Constance and of the community.
This case is a perfect example both of how students can make a difference and how the judges who sit on our bench can codify the values that we hold dear. The judges who sit on the federal bench make decisions that have real-life impacts on individuals across the country--even decisions as personal and minute as who can be our date to prom.