Student challenges Fla. school’s policy on review of independent publications

FLORIDA — A high school freshman has filed a lawsuitchallenging a Broward County School District policy that requires administratorsto review and approve student newspapers, petitions and fliers before studentscan distribute them.Christine Curran was a Driftwood Middle Schooleighth-grader in February 2003 when she passed out fliers to fellow studentsbetween classes, inviting them to a three-day church youth conference. Ateacher at the public school in Hollywood told Curran she would be “written up”if she did not stop distributing the fliers because she had not obtainedapproval from the principal. Curran said she continued to secretly hand out thefliers after the teacher left. Curran said she is suing because theprior review policy discriminates against religious literature and violates theFirst Amendment right to free speech. “I think it’s ridiculous thatpeople can pass out fliers for parties and I can’t pass out fliers for church,like there’s something wrong with it,” Curran said. “I could pass out pizzafliers [for] after school. If I was passing out pizza fliers [for] my church, itwould be a problem.”Curran and her father filed the lawsuit on Jan. 15in the U.S. District Court for the Southeastern District of Florida in Ft.Lauderdale. The fliers stated, “You’re in for a great surprise! Thehumor will make you laugh, the drama will challenge your heart and thepyrotechnics will keep you awake! Admission is free but a love offering will betaken.”The district’s code of conduct states, “Approval must be obtainedfrom a school administrator prior to handing out or posting materials, includingpetitions and surveys; printing any school publications; collecting money orselling advertisements for school publications; and/or distributing anycommercial, political, or religious material on schoolgrounds.”Joe Donzelli, a spokesman for Broward County SchoolDistrict, said the district stands behind the policy. “It was not meantas a way to censor. It’s a matter of maintaining order and a sense of control ona campus,” he said, citing students who “want to push the envelope” as ajustification for the policy. The school district is the fifth largestin the United States, with 273,000 students in grades K-12, Donzellisaid.The policy is in place so schools can determine whether materialsbeing distributed would cause a disturbance, Donzelli said. The policy is inplace to ensure stability and safety at Broward County schools, Donzelli said.Donzelli pointed out that students and parents must sign a statement atthe beginning of each school year saying that they have read the code ofconduct, which is available on the district’s Web site. Curran should have knownthat she needed permission prior to passing out the fliers, Donzelli said.Though Curran’s mother, Caroline Curran, said she remembers signing a formsaying she read the code of conduct, Christine Curran said she was unaware ofthe policy. Mathew Staver, Curran’s attorney and president of theLiberty Counsel, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, said the school’spolicy is unconstitutional because it “chills and abridges the right of studentsto freely speak and meet with other people” and because the school only previewsselect subjects, which “makes the policy even more problematic because it ismaking discriminatory selections based on the content orviewpoint.”Staver said he wonders where the school will draw the line.”Why do they need prior permission?” Staver said. “Permission impliesthey can deny permission. Hopefully it’s a good learning experience for schoolofficials to learn that high school students have constitutional rights.Sometimes [schools] think religion or politics might be controversial, and theymay. The First Amendment protects controversial speech. Otherwise, we don’t needthe First Amendment.”The outcome of this lawsuit could have implicationsfor high school journalists in the school district. If the court rules that theprior review policy is unconstitutional, it would strengthen students’ freedomof expression in distributing independent student publications. Christine Curran now is a freshman at Charles Flanagan High School inPembroke Pines, Fla.