INDIO, Calif. -- Students who placed anti-gay stickers on their identification badges at a Southern California high school have the right to wear the symbols, just as others can sport insignia supporting gay rights, administrators said.
Both symbols are allowed as a matter of free speech, as long as they do not cause a disruption at Shadow Hills High School in Indio, a city outside Palm Springs, administrators said in a statement emailed to staff last week.
CBS Los Angeles reported that the stickers show a rainbow -- the symbol of the gay community -- with a line crossing through it. Officials said the stickers have increasingly shown up over the past two weeks on some students' school ID badges at Shadow Hills High School, as well as on social media websites.
But administrators warned that students cannot interrupt class to express their beliefs.
"We all have a right to freedom of speech, but students also have a right to be educated without fear. This has always been our policy, and we will continue to enforce it," according to their Wednesday statement.
The increasing number of the stickers caused an outcry at the school among students and faculty.
Many called it hate speech.
CBS Los Angeles reported that Shadow Hills senior and vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance Michelle Bachman said on Twitter that the stickers were "definitely hate speech, but legally, we can't do anything until these students start to physically harass us, which I believe is an injustice."
Schools have settled legal disputes over messages on clothing they banned to maintain order. In 2013, a Connecticut school district agreed to let a high school student wear a T-shirt with a slash mark through a gay pride rainbow after facing the threat of legal action from the ACLU.
But federal courts have allowed some limits on student speech, allowing schools to prohibit items like banners and T-shirts that mentioned drug use or came at a school with racial strife.
At the Southern California school, some students and staff object to the stickers because they feel the gay and lesbian community has been targeted, said Amy Oberman, an Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher.
She referred to a 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, which says students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
"Yes, there is freedom of speech established by Tinker, but at least in my view, it's a hate crime because a group was targeted," Oberman said.
District administrators said they discussed the issue extensively and believe they are doing the right thing.
"Sometimes people can be uncomfortable because of an opinion, but that doesn't mean it's bullying," said Laura Fisher, assistant superintendent of personnel services.
Administrators checked ID cards on Feb. 16 and found three students wearing the anti-gay symbol and three wearing pride symbols. The number of anti-gay stickers has since grown to a dozen, gay students stay.