By NEMS Daily Journal
Senior U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson has provided clear guidance to school districts and other public entities confronted with situations such as the one involving a high school prom in Itawamba County.
Davidson, in a decision issued earlier this week, ruled that the school district had violated Constance McMillen’s First Amendment rights in not allowing her to attend Itawamba Agricultural High School’s junior-senior prom with a same-sex date and to dress in a tuxedo for the event. At the same time, he did not require the school system to resume its plan to sponsor the prom.
The Itawamba County School Board thought it was doing what was best for the community in withdrawing the district’s sponsorship of the prom, given what the board and administrators felt could be the disruptive influence of a public challenge to prevailing community mores. But Davidson’s ruling emphasized that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individual expressions of the kind McMillen sought, even when the majority does not agree.
Davidson’s ruling does not stake out new ground. It is based squarely on legal precedent, including rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that sense, it reflects Davidson’s overall conservative judicial temperament.
The school district essentially acknowledged that it would have difficulty defending its position in court when it canceled its sponsorship of the prom after the ACLU intervened on McMillen’s behalf. Davidson wisely refused to compel the school board to renew that sponsorship and hold the prom, stating there was no compelling community interest to do so.
That’s because parents had already taken up the school board’s request to sponsor the prom, and one is planned for all IAHS juniors and seniors who want to attend. We hope, but doubt, that this constructive effort by parents in the Fulton community to defuse a volatile situation will get positive national media notice in view of all the negative attention and response that preceded it.
Naturally there will be disagreement with Davidson’s ruling on the First Amendment rights question. But he really had no other choice, given court precedents in similar cases. The First Amendment protects even – and perhaps especially – unpopular expressions or causes.
McMillen and the ACLU have made the legal point, and there will be a community-sponsored prom for all IAHS students. The combination of those developments makes further litigation or a trial seeking damages unnecessarily divisive. It’s time for IAHS students, teachers and administrators to be able to get on with the business of education minus the controversy and distractions of recent days.