Kristy Bennett is legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi. Bennett was in court today with Constance McMillen for a hearing before a federal judge. The ACLU was in court seeking an injunction that would force the Itawamba County School Board to un-cancel Itwamba Agricultural High School's prom. Itawamba County School Superintendent Teresa McNeece, Itwamba County School Board Chairman Roy Hood, and Itawamba Agricultural High School principal Trae Wiygul all took the stand today. The hearing was in federal court in Aberdeen, Mississippi, about an hour's drive from Fulton.
How'd it go?
We think that it went pretty well. The judge, obviously, is going to take some time to look over the cases before making a decision.
What did the school board argue today?
The defendants' main contention has been that Constance's actions caused a disruption, that her request to go to prom was a distraction to the learning environment, and that is why they had to cancel the prom. But none of the witneses the defense called bore that out. The main distraction they all mentioned were the emails and calls they received about this. Principal Wiygul said he had received 4000 emails, 90% supporting Constance, and Superintendent McNeece said she got a lot of calls from parents. But on cross examination they were all asked if they received any emails or calls before the district made their March 10 decision to cancel prom. They said, no, pretty much all the calls and emails came after they cancelled prom, not before.
What was the atmosphere like in the courtroom?
It was very sedate, some reporters in the audience, a couple of supporters there for Constance. Quite a few cameras outside, but they’re not allowed in the courtroom.
When do you expect a decision from the judge?
It could be as early as 5 PM today, or it will come tomorrow.
What's your case based on?
There is case law that says Constance has a right to attend prom with a same-sex date, Fricke v. Lynch back in 1980. It was a Rhode Island district court case. This is a 1st Amendment issue, a freedom-of-expressoin issue. By attending prom with a same-sex date, or in a tuxedo, Constance is making a statement about her sexual and political views. The main issue the judge is looking at now is whether he has the authority to issue an order to the school forcing them to host a prom. That’s the issue the judge has to grapple with.
People have been talking about cases during the Civil Rights era, when courts ordered cities in the South to integrate public swimming pools and cities closed them—destroyed them, filling them with dirt or concrete—rather than integrating them. Did you cite those cases during the hearing?
No, we didn't. The defense did. They cited cases where cities had closed pools and courts said back then that they didn’t have the authority to force the re-opening of pools. Courts had issued rulings that found a violation, that people’s rights had been violated, but they weren’t going to order the pools back open.
So the school board's lawyers went to court and compared the school board's actions to those of government officials that closed pools to block integration? They compared themselves racist segregationists in the 1960s?
Now that you say it, yeah, they did compare themselves with governments that were closing pools.
So what happens now?
What could happen is the judge could deny the injunction, but then we still move forward with the case and we ultimately have a trial on the merits. Even if the judge rules against us we can still get a decision at trial that Constance's rights were violated.
Superintendant McNeece said in court today that she assumed all students would be welcome at the private prom, the "Furniture Mart Prom." Is that true?
No, I don’t believe that all students will be welcome. I think that there’s some information out there that indicates that Constance won’t be welcome.
But if she’s invited she’ll go to the Furniture Mart Prom, she has said that she'll go.