The Supreme Court has declined to review either of two Texas cases involving First Amendment rights. Both cases involved students at Texas elementary schools who were prevented by their principals from distributing Christian-themed favors to other students. In each case, the students tried to pass out the favors during parties in their classrooms. The students were attempting to hold the principals personally responsible for violating their rights to free speech.
In an earlier decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the principals in both cases were out of line when they refused to allow the students to distribute the favors, which were essentially the same as favors that other children were allowed to distribute. However, the lower court had ruled that the students could not sue their principals because the line between the right of the students to speak of their religious faith and the duty of the principals to maintain religious neutrality in the schools is unclear.
In court documents, the students had called upon their right to freedom of religion and their right to free speech, arguing that censoring speech simply because it expressed a religious point-of-view is a clear violation of those rights. However, government officials cannot be held personally liable for their official behavior unless the law in the matter is so clear that a reasonable person would be expected to know that their actions were in violation of the constitution. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the behavior of school officials did not meet that standard in this case.
In the original case, the students based their argument on the fact that the favors were excluded solely because of the religious messages printed on them. Similar items bearing secular messages were not prohibited. The principals took the position, later ruled invalid by the court, that the students had no right to distribute the favors because classroom parties are not forums for communication between students.
If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.