Case settled over Mass. students’ suspensions for handing out religious candy canes

MASSACHUSETTS — Westfield High School students can nowdistribute religious literature before or after class without fear of reprimand,due to a recent settlement of a lawsuit filed by six Westfield students againstthe school district.Officials at Westfield Public Schools worked withthe students’ lawyers to form a new policy governing the distribution ofnoncurriculum materials, following a March ruling by U.S. District Judge FrankFreedman, who declared the school’s previous policies “likelyunconstitutional.” In May the school board adopted the new policy, whichclearly defines the guidelines students must follow when passing out their ownliterature, religious or otherwise, on school grounds.Judge Freedmanapproved the terms of the settlement, closing the case filed by members of theschool’s Bible club, Life and Insight for Eternity. In December 2002, thestudents asked Principal Thomas Delay permission to distribute 450 candy canesthat included a reminder about their club meetings and a scripture verse. Delayrefused the request of the club because he said the literature may be seen as“offensive” to other students. Despite the principal’srefusal, the students distributed candy canes to students between classes andduring lunch. Upon returning from winter break in January, the students wereissued one-day, in-school suspensions for their disobedience.Under thesettlement, the school district agreed to pay the students’ $28,500 inattorney fees. And, the school will expunge the students’ suspensions fromtheir records as the court ordered in its decision.The new distributionpolicy allows students to distribute literature to other students duringnoninstructional time, which is defined as before or after class and duringlunch. The only reasons that school officials are permitted to restrictdistribution are if they have reason to believe the proposed distribution isdisruptive or will infringe on the rights of other students. The policy alsostates that school officials can deny distribution if they believe theliterature would result in a “pre-planned gathering of six or morestudents for the purpose of influencing the behavior, conduct or beliefs ofothers.”The policy also distinguishes between“school-sponsored speech” and “school-tolerated speech.”The policy states that students who engage in school-tolerated speech may notuse the name of the high school in a way that may lead other students to believethat the speech was school-sponsored.The policy will be implemented intothe school board policy as well as the student handbook for the 2003-2004 schoolyear.Lawyers from the Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties legal defenseorganization, represented the students. Its president, Matthew Staver, said heis pleased with the district’s decision to settle out of court. He saidthat the decision solidifies the notion that students have the constitutionalright to engage in free speech through the distribution of literature.Staver commends Judge Freedman’s 67-page opinion, referring to itas the “best written legal opinion in print on the rights of students toengage in First Amendment expressive activity through the distribution ofliterature in public schools.” Freedman ruled that the studentsinvolved in the distribution could not be punished for their actions because theLIFE club is not a part of the school curriculum, the students do not receiveacademic credit for their participation and the school does not fund the club.In doing so, the court struck down the administrators’ claim thatthe school had the authority to restrict the students’ expression underU.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier becausethe LIFE club is a school-sponsored organization.The court said thatHazelwood did not apply although it considered the club“school-sponsored” in terms of access to campus facilities. Staver said that the decision will have a much broader impact thanWestfield High School or the state of Massachusetts, setting a strong precedentfor future related cases.“Even though its at the district courtlevel, this will be a cited case around the country as the lead case regardingthe rights of free speech in public schools.”A lawyer forWestfield Public Schools declined to comment, saying court documents spoke forthemselves.

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