School districts in Pennsylvania have been told to remove unconstitutional speech limits after a federal appeals court struck down one district’s policy.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has sent a letter to nearly 300 districts explaining how their policies fall short of the U.S. Constitution according to a ruling earlier this year from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court ruled against two policies used by a district to prevent a fifth-grade student from distributing invitations to a party at her church.
The Barrett Elementary Center relied on policies numbered 220 and 913 to ban the student’s invitations, arguing that First Amendment freedoms for students can be severely limited.
The appeals court, however, found it is “difficult to identify a constitutional justification for cabining the First Amendment protections … to older students.”
“The fact that K.A. was only in the fifth grade and the invitation originated from her church does not mandate a different approach.”
Now ADF says it has written to other districts because of the similarities in their policies to the unconstitutional policies in the Pocono Mountain School District.
“Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas,” said ADF Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “The speech and literature distribution policies of many schools districts in Pennsylvania are virtually identical to the ones the 3rd Circuit struck down. These policies violate the First Amendment right of students to distribute religious materials at school.”
The letter says, “The Supreme Court has made it clear that students ‘do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’”
Moreover, the letter states, “The Supreme Court has definitively held that religious expression – whether spoken, written, or symbolic – is protected by the First Amendment.”
“America’s public schools should recognize the constitutionally protected freedom of all students, regardless of their religious views,” said Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “We hope that school districts in Pennsylvania will respect these freedoms and revise their policies accordingly.”
The letter informs the districts that they are not allowed to ban material that is not “directly related to school district activities or [does not] contribute significantly to district instructional programs.”
Policy 913 restricts material regarding nonschool organizations and Policy 220 restricts material from “a particular religious denomination, sect, or point of view.”
“We ask that you take immediate steps to revise these policies to remedy the violation of students’ First Amendment rights,” the letter says. “It is common for students to advocate on behalf of causes and organizations, and the First Amendment protects their right to do so. When a student engages in expression at school – whether speaking with a classmate or handing out written invitations to a nonschool event – ‘the burden is on school authorities to meet Tinker’s requirements to abridge student First Amendment rights.’”
The policies also violate the prohibition against discrimination against a particular viewpoint.
In addition, the district’s guidelines frequently are so vague they give officials “unbridled discretion” to determine whether or not certain “student expression” is permissible.
“Based solely on the content or viewpoint of the materials, a school official could conclude that invitations to a church event are not in the community welfare, while flyers for a sports league are. This virtually unlimited discretion is what the First Amendment stands again.”