Supreme Court declines to hear Columbine H.S. case about memorial restrictions, raises questions for student journalists

Whether high schools have the right to suppress speech, simply based on the viewpoint students express, will not be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court at least for the time being. On Jan. 13, the high court declined to hear a case brought by parents of slain Columbine High School students, who sued the school district for taking down their memorial artwork because it contained religious references.

Last summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld the school’s decision. By doing so, the appellate court joined a short list of courts nationwide to rule that schools can restrict school-sponsored speech even if their reasons for doing so is that they disagree with the views being expressed. Other courts have prohibited viewpoint discrimination, including the district court judge in the Columbine case.

Following the April 20, 1999, shootings at Columbine that left 15 people dead, school officials proposed a decorative memorial made up of individual tiles. Students, parents and community members were given the opportunity to create four-by-four-inch tiles, but they were instructed to keep their designs free of references to the shootings, names of victims or any religious designs or symbols.

About 80 tiles were removed for those violations, including one submitted by Donald and Diedra Fleming, parents of one of the victims. Their tile included the date of the attack and the words, “Jesus Wept.”

The Flemings and other families challenged the school district’s actions as a violation of their freedom of speech and religion. The families were aided by The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization. The school district argued the tiles were school-sponsored speech, which could be regulated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. A federal judge sided with the parents, but the appellate court overturned the decision and concluded that under Hazelwood, viewpoint discrimination is allowed.

SPLC View: By declining to hear the appeal, the Supreme Court has allowed debate to continue over whether school administrators are allowed to practice viewpoint discrimination to quell school-sponsored speech that falls under Hazelwood. The question is an important one for school-sponsored student media that are experiencing censorship for controversial views expressed on their editorial pages or by sources in stories. Can a school censor an opinion column criticizing the move towards war against Iraq because that view is unpopular in the community, for example? The SPLC has long maintained that even after Hazelwood, that kind of censorship is not permissible under the First Amendment.

In other rulings involving expression presented in non-public forums, the Court has long rejected viewpoint discrimination. Because the Hazelwood decision never addressed the question directly, school censors have argued that the Court intended to allow viewpoint censorship. Such a conclusion dramatically expands the impact of Hazelwood‘s limitations.