March 23, 2010 8:43:00 AM
ABERDEEN -- Mississippi officials who canceled a prom after a lesbian student asked to bring her girlfriend told a federal judge Monday that there were issues with the event even before that.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing in U.S. District Court to force the Itawamba County school district to sponsor the prom and allow Constance McMillen to escort her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.
Schools Superintendent Teresa McNeece and school board Chairman Eddie Hood testified that they had discussed not sponsoring the prom even before McMillen challenged a rule that prohibits same-sex dates. They said they had concerns about liability problems, including possible use of alcohol and drugs at a school-sponsored event.
But they also said they decided to call off the April 2 prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School because McMillen''s challenge to the rules had caused disruptions.
"We were being hounded every day. Our students were being hounded," McNeece said. "We were having a tough time of any bell-to-bell instruction."
On cross-examination, school officials did not give specific examples of classroom disruptions.
McMillen first approached school officials about bringing her girlfriend in December, and again shortly before a Feb. 5 memo about prom rules was circulated to students. Same-sex prom dates had been banned in the past, but she had hoped school officials would grant her request.
She was told two girls could not attend the prom together and she would not be allowed to wear a tuxedo. The ACLU issued a letter earlier this month demanding that she be allowed to bring her girlfriend and wear what she wanted.
District officials responded by canceling the event, saying they felt it was the best decision "after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students."
ACLU attorney Kristy Bennett said in court Monday that the district violated McMillen''s First Amendment rights and that it was the decision to cancel the prom -- not McMillen''s request to bring her girlfriend -- that caused the disruptions school officials described.
"Any disruption came after the actual cancellation of the prom," Bennett said.
In closing arguments, Bennett said the district "shouldn''t be able to censor Ms. McMillen''s speech simply by canceling the prom."
Ben Griffith, an attorney representing the school district, said holding or attending a prom is not a constitutional right.
District officials "took a step they considered to be necessary," he said.
McMillen testified the district''s decision led to hostility toward her on campus. She said she left school early the day after the district''s decision and didn''t go at all the next day.
"There were so many dirty looks," McMillen said. "A lot of people didn''t like me very much."
The 715-student high school is located in Fulton, a town of about 4,000 in rural north Mississippi. The entire county school district has 3,588 students.
Principal Trae Wiygul said he had been "bombarded" with e-mails, most from people criticizing the district''s decision.
"I''ve been called every name known to man," Wiygul said. "I''ve been called a bigot and homophobic."
U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson, who is hearing the case, did not say when he would rule, but said he wants to do it quickly because "time is of the essence."
Parents are now organizing a prom. School officials said it is open to the public, but McMillen said she had not been told about it.
The ACLU and gay rights groups have raised private funds for a May 8 prom in Tupelo that''s open to everyone but geared toward gay students. Bennett said planning for the "second-chance" prom was underway before McMillen''s case began, but "the outpouring for Constance enables this to be a much bigger event."
1. Pumps reducing water level at Oktibbeha Lake STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
2. Elm Lake, three other neighborhoods to get fiber optic internet COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. 'One big old family': Neighborhood near Oktibbeha County Lake has long history of unity, fellowship STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
4. Anti-bullying program helps link Caledonia fourth-graders in atmosphere of kindness COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY