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Florida high school won't accept pro-life student club

Gulf Coast High School recognizes 78 different clubs but says pro-life club is too ‘political,’ ‘controversial’

Thursday, Nov 7, 2019
NAPLES, Fla. – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Thursday to officials with Collier County Public Schools and Gulf Coast High School after they refused to officially recognize a pro-life club because it is too “political” and “controversial.” The letter explains that the refusal to recognize Sharks 4 Life, which would be an independent student group affiliated with the national Students for Life organization, is clearly unconstitutional and violates the federal Equal Access Act.

Gulf Coast High School currently recognizes 78 different clubs on campus, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Animal Rights Club, the Gay Straight Alliance, and Collier Students for Change, which is affiliated with Florida’s Democratic Party.

“Public school officials can’t refuse to recognize a student organization for being too ‘political’ or ‘controversial,’ especially when they have rightfully approved a whole host of other clubs formed around religious, political, and social interests,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross. “The First Amendment doesn’t permit a public school to play favorites when approving student organizations. Gulf Coast High School must recognize Sharks 4 Life, and Collier County Public Schools needs to update its policies so that this doesn’t happen again.”

ADF attorneys represent student Gabrielle Gabbard, who applied in early August for recognition of Sharks 4 Life. After Gabbard and one of her faculty advisors met with Assistant Principal Catherine Crawford-Brown to discuss the matter, Crawford-Brown reaffirmed her refusal to recognize the club and then threatened one of the advisors with termination if she continued to try to be a faculty advisor for Sharks 4 Life. Crawford-Brown made these remarks even though she knew that the club needed a faculty advisor to be approved. Because of these remarks, both of the faculty advisors promptly withdrew as faculty advisors for the club.

“The School District’s and Ms. Crawford-Brown’s failure to recognize Sharks 4 Life is blatantly illegal under the Equal Access Act and First Amendment, both of which guarantee Ms. Gabbard’s right to have a student club that stands on equal footing with the hundreds of other student clubs in Collier County public schools,” the ADF letter explains.

“To prevent Collier County from denying full access to clubs or indefinitely delaying a decision on any student club in the future, and in light of Ms. Crawford-Brown’s open intimidation, we…request that, by November 21, 2019, the Collier County School Board agree to update Procedure ap2430 to specify that all of its schools will timely consider all requests to start new student clubs and that, in compliance with the Equal Access Act, they will not discriminate against a club or prospective club because of the club’s religious, political, philosophical, or other content of its speech,” the letter continues. “If you fail to grant these requests, we will have no option but to advise our client of other avenues for vindicating her rights.”

“Across the country, we are seeing incredible opposition to the pro-life speech of our student leaders and volunteers as they speak for the defenseless and educate their fellow students on abortion,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “But the law and the Constitution are clear on the matter: Public schools cannot single out pro-life groups for exclusion from recognition. Officials in Collier County need to do the right thing and do it quickly.”

Students for Life of America is a national pro-life organization dedicated to training and equipping students to lead local pro-life student groups like Sharks 4 Life at secondary schools and universities. They have more than 1,200 groups across the country, including 28 groups in Florida.

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.
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