District court throws out suspensions for Mass. students who passed out religious candy canes

MASSACHUSETTS — A federal judge ruled on March 17that the suspensions handed down to six Westfield High School students fordistributing candy canes with religious messages violated their First Amendmentrights.U.S. district Judge Frank Freedman ruled the school’sliterature distribution policies were likely to be declared unconstitutionalbecause they “are prior restraints on speech.” The court said thatthe district did not have clear criteria for the principal to make a decisionabout materials submitted for review or a process for students to appeal theprincipal’s decision.The case was filed after members of theschool’s Bible club, Life and Insight for Eternity, requested permissionin December 2002 to distribute 450 candy canes that included a note about theirclub meetings and a prayer. Principal Thomas Delay denied the club’srequest because he said the message might be “offensive” tostudents.Despite the principal’s decision, the students decided todistribute candy canes between classes and during lunch. When they returned fromwinter vacation in January, they were issued one day, in-school suspensions forinsubordination. In granting the students preliminary injunction, the courtthrew out the suspensions, which the students had not served, and ordered themremoved from the students’ records.In court, the administrationargued that the candy canes were in violation of the Establishment Clause of theFirst Amendment, which mandates the separation of church and state. But JudgeFreedman ruled that the students’ actions were private speech and theEstablishment Clause did not apply.Administrators also argued that underthe U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier,the school had the authority to regulate the students’ expression becausethe LIFE club is a school-sponsored organization.The court found thatalthough the club is considered “school-sponsored” in terms ofaccess to campus facilities, Hazelwood did not apply because the LIFEclub is not a part of school curriculum, the students do not receive academiccredit for their participation and the school does not fund the club.Thecourt said the students were provided greater free-speech rights under state lawthan Hazelwood permitted. The Massachusetts student freedom of expressionlaw says that expression is limited only by the requirement that it “benon-disruptive within the school.”The injunction prohibits thedistrict from punishing students or restricting the distribution ofnon-curricular literature “unless the school reasonably forecasts that thedistribution will substantially disrupt or materially interfere with theoperation of the school.”In an interesting side note, the courtsaid, “Viewpoint-based restrictions on speech are per se unconstitutional,irrespective of the forum.” This is in direct contrast with the finding ofthe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Fleming v. JeffersonCounty School District, the case involving religious tiles at Columbine HighSchool (read Appeals court rejects Columbine wall tiles). The court ruled that under the authority granted in Hazelwood,administrators could restrict school-sponsored speech, even if they are doing sobecause they disagree with the views being expressed.Matthew Staver,president of the civil liberties organization the Liberty Counsel, defended theLIFE club members. The Department of Justice and the American Civil LibertiesUnion of Massachusetts also filed briefs in support of the students. Staver saidthey are very pleased with the ruling because it gives the students all therelief they requested.He said he expects the school district to acceptthe injunction and to draft a new policy for the distribution of non-curricularmaterials.

Westfield High School L.I.F.E. Club v. City of Westfield, No. CIVA.03-30008-FHF, 2003 WL 1339052 (D.Mass, Mar. 17 2003)