Colorado judge rules that Columbine High School cannot censor memorial tiles

Proponents of free speech in schools scored a victory Oct. 15, as U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel ruled that families who decorated in-school memorial tiles with religious content were within their First Amendment rights.

The tiles at issue commemorate the 12 students and one teacher who were killed in the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. According to the court, since the school had invited members of the community to “help the healing process and express themselves,” the memorial tiles were part of a limited public forum. In such a forum, the court stated, it is a violation of the First Amendment to curb religious expression.

The plaintiffs, a group of family and friends of shooting victims Daniel Rohrbough and Kelly Fleming, voiced concerns that the school’s actions violated not only free speech, but the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” by showing hostility toward religion.

Jefferson County School officials argued that the plaintiff’s freedom of speech protection did not allow them to disregard how the school should be decorated.

In a press release, The Rutherford Institute — the organization that the represented the plaintiffs — called the decision a great victory. “Once a school opens public forum, they can no longer discriminate on the basis of what people have to say,” the release stated.

SPLC VIEW: This case addresses two important — and frequently misunderstood — issues.

First, despite administrative beliefs to the contrary, the First Amendment is still alive and kicking in our nation’s schools — provided students and others are willing to fight for it. School officials do not have unfettered power to restrict speech at school, particularly in cases where they have allowed or encouraged expression in the past or where they act simply because they disagree with or are bothered by the message being expressed.

Second, religious speech by students and other private persons is protected to the same degree as all other speech. While the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment restricts the right of government officials — including school administrators and faculty — to personally engage in religious speech on the job or to actively encourage their students to do so, students, student journalists and in this case community members, who are not government officials, are not similarly bound. As long as religious speech (including, for example, editorials or news stories in student publications) is student-initiated and created, it is protected the same as speech on other topics. In this case, the school encouraged students to create memorial tiles. Once they had encouraged such expression, or, in legal terms, established a “forum” for expression, school officials did not have the right to censor their otherwise protected speech simply because they were uncomfortable that it expressed a religious viewpoint.

Case: Fleming v. Jefferson County School Dist., Civ. No. 99-D1932 (D. Colo. Oct. 15, 2001)