The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case of a New Jerseystudent whose elementary school denied him permission to distributereligious-themed gifts to his classmates.
The Supreme Court’s March 22decision not to hear the case let stand a lower court’s ruling that schools canregulate elementary school student’s on-campus expression. The court did not saywhy it declined to hear the case, as is customary.
Daniel Walz, anelementary school student in Egg Harbor Township School District, attempted todistribute pencils with the message “Jesus [heart shape] the Little Children”attached during a class party in April 1998. A teacher confiscated the pencilsand school officials said Walz could distribute the pencils only outside ofclass because the school did not want to appear to be endorsingChristianity.
Walz was then prohibited from distributing candy canes witha religious message in December 1998. School officials told Dana Walz that herson could distribute religious material only outside of the classroom. Dana Walzand her son filed a lawsuit against the school district with the help of theRutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville,Va.
Two lower courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the ThirdCircuit, which has jurisdiction over New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and theU.S. Virgin Islands, ruled that schools could control elementary schoolstudents’ expression. According to the Third Circuit’s ruling, “a school’s needto control student behavior will necessarily result in limitations on studentspeech.”
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said theThird Circuit ruling “goes against the grain of AmericanDemocracy.”
Under the Third Circuit’s ruling, Whitehead said schoolsmight prohibit students from wearing armbands to protest the war in Iraq,referencing the black armbands that Des Moines, Iowa, junior high and highschool students wore to protest the Vietnam War. The students’ protest resultedin the Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines IndependentCommunity School District that students “do not shed their constitutionalrights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate” and that students canexpress themselves freely unless their actions caused a substantial disruptionof the educational environment.
“Do we really want a school system wherechildren can’t protest? ” Whitehead asked. “Are you telling me a kid who wantsto hand out candy canes is substantial disruption? You’ve got to be kiddingme.”
SPLC View: Although the action creates no legal precedent, theSupreme Court’s refusal to hear this case will undoubtedly be used by schools tosupport the argument that First Amendment rights in school operate on a slidingscale based on a student’s grade. Under such a scheme, free speech protectionsfor elementary school students would be extremely limited. But school officialsat all levels should be reminded of their responsibility to teach students ofthe values embodied in the First Amendment by example.