A big part of running for office is running a catchy public relations campaign. It's all about getting—and keeping—people's attention. Jarred Gamwell, a 17-year-old junior at James Hunt High School in Wilson, North Carolina, obviously knew this when he penned some of the posters he would eventually plaster on the school walls in his effort to snag the student council presidency there.
He's got a stellar grade point average. He tutors fellow students. He plays the saxophone. And he competes in the Science Olympiad.
It's been a long time since I've walked the corridors of a high school, but I imagine today isn't so much different than in generations past. When you are running for student council president, along with your achievements, you have to be able to sell some sort of 'cool factor,' or something that sets you apart, makes you stand out.
Gamwell knew exactly what that angle would be: In addition to being intelligent and musically talented, he's also gay. In some places, gay is even considered hip and cool.
From the slogans Gamwell eventually penned, it's obvious he took note of the pop culture coolness that being gay now enjoys in many circles. Two of his posters read, 'Queer Eye for Hunt High,' and 'Gay Guys Know Everything!'
'All I wanted to do was be open about who I am and let other students know that if they elect me president I'll welcome and accept diversity and a variety of ideas,' he says.
But for Hunt High School's principal, Bill Williamson, the posters were anything but cool or catchy or admirable for their honesty.
Somehow, he found them offensive. And he had them pulled down.
According to Gamwell's account, he hung the two posters in question on school walls on the morning of April 20. By the end of the next class, the posters were missing.
That afternoon, he was called to the office of the vice principal. There, he found his missing posters. The vice principal told Gamwell the posters could not be put back up. The vice principal told him to take the matter up with the principal.
The next day, Gamwell went to the principal's office. By Gamwell's accounts, Williamson admitted he was the one who had the posters removed, but wouldn't tell why. Gamwell pleaded his case. He says he tried for two days to get a verbal and written response from the principal. He says all he got was an answer saying principals don't have to justify their actions to students.
That's when Gamwell went to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has intervened on his behalf, demanding not only that the posters be allowed to be put back up in the halls, but also that Gamwell be allowed to address the issue of his sexual orientation—and the school's censorship—in his speech to the student body.
The school district's attorney, David Orcutt, defended the principal's actions, saying the posters were taken down because 'the language was inappropriate.' School spokespeople have also said the posters were 'disruptive of the educational process' and 'irrelevant' to the campaign for student body president.
Bill Williamson may not feel like he has to explain his actions to his students, but he does have to follow the U.S. Constitution, and this is a pretty clear case of censoring political speech. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that while the rights of high school kids may be more limited than those of adults, their free speech is still protected.
Unfortunately, a lower North Carolina court didn't see it that way, and refused to end the school's censorship against Gamwell.
But what is more interesting than the legal implications are the social ones. And they are also more optimistic for gay and lesbian kids.
The powers that be—meaning the old fogies—who run the high school somehow deemed the 'language' of the posters untenable because they mentioned the word 'gay.' To them, 'gay' is still a dirty word, because in their minds, it's still about sex—not sexual orientation.
But young Jarred Gamwell, and likely many of his schoolmates, understands the difference. Furthermore, the young generation is far less likely to be 'offended' by Gamwell's statement. Who knows, many of them may even be impressed with it, and with Gamwell's honesty and courage. I know I am.
Those are two more qualities that would suit him well as president of James Hunt High School. The kid sure gets my vote.
[Gamwell came in last place in the election.]