For immediate release
VIRGINIA — The Student Press Law Center last week urged the federal appeals court in New Orleans to overturn a lower court ruling that would allow public high school officials to censor student or other private party speech in schools simply because they disagreed with the viewpoint it expressed.
The SPLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the case of Chiras v. Miller.
The case arose after the Texas School Board of Education (SBOE) rejected an environmental science textbook submitted to it for use in Texas high schools.
The book’s author, Daniel Chiras, who was joined in his lawsuit by two Texas high school students enrolled in advanced placement science classes, said his book contained no errors and met state curriculum requirements. The book was recommended for approval by the Texas’ Commissioner of Education and received high marks from the Science Teachers Association of Texas.
Chiras claims that the SBOE rejected the book in 2001 solely because of testimony before the board by conservative groups that labeled it anti-Christian and anti-free enterprise.
In July, a federal district court dismissed the author’s claims. The court said that the SBOE could lawfully reject the textbook based on the board’s disagreement with its viewpoint and even if their only reason for doing so was that it contained ideas that did not accurately reflect “the traditional, conservative values of most Texans.”
Book publishers and others warn that the case has far reaching effects because, as the nation’s second largest buyer of textbooks, the Texas school system heavily influences textbook adoption across the country.
The SPLC warned in its brief that the case could also have a major impact on the rights of public high school student media. Traditionally, courts have refused to allow government officials to censor speech simply because they disagreed with it. The district court in this case said a different standard should apply to school-sponsored speech.
If the district court’s opinion in this case is upheld, school officials, for example, could arguably forbid students from writing an editorial for a student newspaper in support of prayer in school or against standardized testing while allowing editorials to be published that took opposing positions.
“The decision potentially throws open the doors to widespread censorship and intimidation of student speech and press whenever school officials disagree with the opinions of students expressed therein,” the Student Press Law Center argued in its brief. “This sweeping elimination of the viewpoint neutrality doctrine will allow school officials to exclude any student expression that varies from ‘approved’ viewpoints on such issues as the environment, government policy, business, the economy and politics.”
The SPLC brief was written by a team of lawyers, led by Joe Sullivan, from the law firm of Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia and with the assistance of the New Orleans law firm of Phelps Dunbar.
CASE: Chiras v. Miller, 2004 WL 1660388 (N.D. Tex. July 23, 2004), appeal docketed, No. 04-10998 (5th Cir. 2004)
The brief is available at www.splc.org/pdf/splcchirasbrief.pdf