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Historic case seeking to enforce a student’s First Amendment right to be out at school


When he was in the ninth grade, Derek Henkle came out at his Reno, Nevada, public school. Almost immediately, he was harassed about his sexual orientation. On one occasion students lassoed a rope around his neck in the school parking lot and threatened to kill him by dragging him from their truck. Instead of dealing appropriately with his attackers and ensuring his safety, school authorities treated Henkle as if he were the problem and transferred him to an alternative school for troubled students. The principal there told Henkle to “stop acting like a fag.” After a transfer to yet a third school, Henkle was beaten bloody by another student while two school security guards stood by. Unwilling to take measures to create a safe educational environment for Henkle, school officials had him take classes at a local community college to obtain a GED instead of a high school diploma. Lambda Legal’s lawsuit against the school administrators resulted in a landmark settlement. Henkle received $451,000 in damages, the largest pretrial award of its kind in the nation, and the Washoe County School District agreed to implement sweeping new policies to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.


Students have a constitutional right to speak about their sexual orientation and issues related to it in school settings. Censoring or retaliating against that speech violates the First Amendment. Still, to this day, 90 percent of students aged 13–18 report that they have been harassed or assaulted at school in the past year, and one third of teens report that students are frequently harassed because they are perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Lambda Legal’s Impact

The settlement agreement reached in this case broke new ground by recognizing that lesbian and gay youth have a First Amendment right to be out at school. It sent a strong message to schools around the country that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth will not be tolerated. Additionally, the sweeping changes implemented by the school district have created a model policy for schools seeking to prevent sexual orientation discrimination.

    • January 28, 2000 Lambda Legal files federal lawsuit against Washoe County school administrators in Reno, Nevada, for allowing years of merciless abuse to prevent a gay student from completing high school.
    • March 1, 2001 United States Magistrate Judge Robert A. McQuaid, Jr. denies defendants’ motion to dismiss Henkle’s freedom of speech claims, issuing a precedent-setting opinion holding school officials responsible for violating Henkle’s First Amendment rights.
    • August 28, 2002 Settlement agreement is reached, offering broad new protections affecting lesbian and gay students nationwide.