Students win in 'canes' case

MASSACHUSETTS — Students at Westfield High School can now distribute literature before or after class without fear of reproach, due to the June settlement of a lawsuit filed by six students who were suspended for handing out religious-themed candy canes. 

In May the school committee for Westfield Public Schools adopted a new policy, which clearly defines the guidelines students must follow when distributing noncurriculum materials at school, religious or otherwise. School officials worked with the students’ lawyers to form the policy after a federal district court declared in March that the school’s previous policies were “likely unconstitutional” because the review process acted as a prior restraint. 

U.S. District Judge Frank Freedman approved the terms of the settlement, closing the case filed by members of the  Bible club, Life and Insight for Eternity. 

In December 2002, Principal Thomas Delay rejected the students’ request to distribute 450 candy canes with a reminder about their club meetings and a scripture verse. He said other students might be offended. Despite the principal’s refusal, the students handed out the candy canes to students between classes and during lunch. Upon returning from winter break in January, Delay issued the students one-day, in-school suspensions for their disobedience.

Under the settlement, the school district agreed to pay the students’ $28,500 in attorney fees. The school also will expunge the students’ suspensions from their records as the court ordered in its decision.

The new distribution policy allows students to distribute literature to other students during noninstructional time, which is defined as before or after class and during lunch period. School officials are permitted to reject handouts only if they have reason to believe their distribution will be disruptive or will infringe on the rights of other students. 

The policy also states that students may not use the name of the high school in a way that may lead other students to believe that the literature was school-sponsored.

The policy will be implemented into the school board policy as well as the student handbook for this school year.

Lawyers from the Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties legal defense organization, represented the students. Its president, Matthew Staver, said he was pleased with the district’s decision to settle out of court. 

Staver commended Judge Freedman’s 67-page opinion, referring to it as the “best written legal opinion in print on the rights of students to engage in First Amendment expressive activity through the distribution of literature in public schools.”  

The court ruled that the students could not be punished because the Bible club is not a part of curriculum or funded by the school. 

In doing so, the court rejected the administrators’ claim that the school had the authority to restrict the students’ expression under U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Under the case, schools can censor some school-sponsored materials.

Freedman said that Hazelwood did not apply although it considered the club “school-sponsored” in terms of access to campus facilities.  

A lawyer for Westfield Public Schools declined to comment further than saying court documents spoke for themselves.