A federal court of appeals unanimously struck down a Florida school board policy barring students from distributing religious literature on campus.
Represented by the public-interest group Liberty Counsel, student Michelle Heinkel of Cypress Lake Middle School in Fort Myers had sought permission to distribute religious and pro-life literature about the “Day of Remembrance,” set aside to remember unborn children killed by abortion.
But Superintendent James Browder of the Lee County School District denied the request, citing a board policy prohibiting students from distributing literature that is political, religious or proselytizing.
The next year Heinkel repeated the request – this time joined by Nate Cordray, a student at Riverdale High School – and was turned down again.
A federal district court upheld the policy, but the court of appeals found it unconstitutional.
In its unanimous decision, the upper court ruled that the policy’s ban on all political and religious literature was an unconstitutional content-based restriction.
The court also ruled the policy gave too much unrestricted discretion to school officials to deny speech.
Erik Stanley, chief counsel of Liberty Counsel, pointed out public school students have a right to free speech outside of class sessions.
“A school’s desire to squelch speech because of discomfort with the message is unconstitutional,” he said.
Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman Mathew Staver, who argued the case before the district court and on appeal, said “religious and political speech are twin sisters, without which we have no freedom.”
“Public schools may ban obscenity and libel, but religious and political speech does not stop at the schoolhouse door,” he said. “Banning religious speech sends the wrong message that religion is taboo or second class, which proposition neither this court nor the Constitution is willing to tolerate. Educators need education about American history and the Constitution.”