How One Student's Lawsuit Against Her School For Censorship Launched A Powerful Chain Of Events

How can someone's identity be in violation of the dress code?

16-year-old Taylor Victor is, like many other high school students her age, interested in expressing herself through her outfits. So when her school reportedly punished her for wearing a shirt that read "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian" by sending her home, Victor, who is openly gay, decided to respond with a federal lawsuit against the administration. Last week, almost six months after the incident, the California high school student's T-shirt lawsuit has been settled, with the school agreeing to a series of important changes.

When Victor wore the shirt as a joke one day in August, the Sierra High School's administrators told her that either she had to change out of it, or go home for the day. Victor went home. 

In a post on Medium, Victor wrote:

They said my shirt was "disruptive" even though it obviously wasn't. They said I wasn't allowed to display my "personal choices and beliefs" on my clothing. And my favorite excuse of all  —  they said my shirt could be "gang related" and was an "open invitation to sex."

After a few days of back-and-forth with the administration to let her wear her shirt yielded no results, Victor got in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. With their help, she sued the vice principal and assistant principal for censorship.

At the end of the legal battle, the school denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to change its dress code and foot the estimated $63,000 in legal fees on Victor's behalf. 

"The dress code now clearly says that students can wear clothing with statements celebrating their cultural identities and those of their classmates," Linnea Nelson, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, told A Plus. "District administrators will be required to attend professional development training to bring them up-to-date on their duty to protect free speech."

Linnea Nelson & Taylor Victor
Linnea Nelson & Taylor Victor ACLU of Northern California

That day in August, Victor could have simply changed her shirt or gone home and forgot the whole incident. Instead, she decided to embark on a bold, lengthy lawsuit that required time, effort and a whole lot of money — and ultimately succeeded in changing the system for the better. 

"Taylor sent a message all around the U.S. that it's okay to be yourself at school. Students do have the right to free speech — they don't leave it behind once they walk in the school doors," Nelson said. 

In her essay, Victor wrote that she wanted other kids to know that there was nothing wrong with being themselves at school. "It's okay to stand up for what you believe in," Victor added. "Even if what you believe in is controversial. Even if what you believe in makes your teacher or your principal uncomfortable."

Cover image via ACLU of Northern California