Sullivan & Cromwell

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Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
59
Sullivan & Cromwell (15)
62.9
73.7
44.3

 

In early February, The American Civil Liberties Union called Sullivan & Cromwell with an urgent request for help. The ACLU had just filed a federal civil rights case against a rural school district in The Am Law Pro Bono 100Florida on behalf of a group of high school students who had been banned from expressing support for gay and lesbian classmates. The trial was in four months.

When a colleague contacted Garrard Beeney, a senior IP and antitrust partner, to see if he was available to help, Beeney says it took him "about a second" to say yes. "Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our time," Beeney says. "Combine that with a school system suppressing student freedom of expression, and this looked like a perfect case for us." The case was equally popular with the firm's associates: When Beeney e-mailed for volunteers, "we were oversubscribed in just a few minutes," he recalls.

The students' case came on the heels of a yearlong escalation of harassment of a gay student at the school. Instead of addressing the harassment, school officials responded by rebuking the student for her sexuality, investigating the "Gay Pride" movement at the school, and censoring students who showed support for their gay classmates. Students were prohibited from wearing rainbow belts or writing "Gay Pride" on their arms or notebooks. Ultimately, in late September 2007, 11 students were suspended for a week for their involvement in the "Gay Pride" movement because they belonged to an "illegal organization" forbidden by school board policy.

The mother of a self-identified heterosexual student supporter, 15-year-old Heather Gillman, had seen a poster for the ACLU at her employer's office. She called the organization to see if anything could be done. The ACLU sent a letter to the school district seeking clarification about whether a variety of gay-supportive symbols and slogans would be allowed at the school. The district wrote back that such speech would "likely be disruptive." The ACLU filed suit.

Within days of the filing, Sullivan lawyers flew to Florida to prepare Gillman and several other teenage students for court, deposing them, instructing them on how to address the judge, and even what to wear.

Trial began May 12 in Panama City. During two days of testimony, the principal admitted that he had banned the gay pride symbols, calling the rainbows "sexually suggestive."

In the end, the students were vindicated. U.S. district court judge Richard Smoak condemned the school for its actions, noting that the school had not only had an opportunity to teach tolerance, but had done the opposite. The school was permanently enjoined from restraining students from expressing their support of gay and lesbian people and warned against retaliating against students over the suit. "The facts in this case are extraordinary," noted Judge Smoak. The school board "has imposed an outright ban on speech by students that is not vulgar, lewd, obscene, plainly offensive, or violent, but which is pure, political, and expresses tolerance, acceptance, fairness, and support for not only a marginalized group, but more importantly, for a fellow student."

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