Fla. school district settles suit with student who challenged distribution policy

FLORIDA — Former Driftwood Middle School student Christine Curran and the Broward County School District have settled a lawsuit that Curran filed in January 2004 after school officials prohibited her from distributing fliers at school inviting students to a three-day church youth seminar.

Under the Feb. 2 settlement the school district agreed to write a new district policy on free speech and student publications to add to the code of conduct. The school district also agreed to pay Curran’s attorney’s fees and costs.

The new policy lists reasons why certain materials may not be distributed at school and establishes a 24-hour deadline for school officials to decide if a student’s material will be denied distribution. The policy also says that approved materials must contain the phrase, “The opinions and/or activities are not endorsed or sponsored by the school board.”

The previous policy stated, “Approval must be obtained from a school administrator prior to handing out materials, including distributing any religious material on school grounds.”

Curran had not obtained prior administrative approval.

Curran’s fliers read, “You’re in for a great surprise! The humor will make you laugh, the drama will challenge your heart and the pyrotechnics will keep you awake! Admission is free but a love offering will be taken.”

As Curran was distributing the fliers between classes, a teacher told her she was acting against district policy and she faced being punished. Curran and her father sued the district following the incident, claiming the policy infringed on Curran’s First Amendment right to free speech and also discriminated against the distributors of religious literature.

The new policy says that students should expect certain materials will not be allowed in schools. Materials can be denied if they are deemed obscene or pornographic; libelous or slanderous; are likely to create a disruption at school; contain profane, vulgar or lewd language; or if they are selling a product. The policy also says a school official must provide students with “specific reasons” for why material cannot be distributed.

Under the original policy, only “pornographic and/or prejudicial materials” were prohibited.

Curran was represented by Liberty Counsel, a non-profit law firm that argues for religious freedoms.

According to Curran’s lawyer, Erik Stanley, and Joe Donzelli, a Broward County School District spokesman, the new, more straightforward policy clarifies the original language and therefore assists school officials and students.

“The old policy pretty much left it up to the whim of the school to deny any literature. The new policy puts some very strict standards on when literature requests can be denied,” Stanley said. “Before, the old policy did not have a time limit and so [the request for distribution] really could just be effectively denied by just the principal sitting on it. So we think the policy just really tightens the standards a lot and protects student speech much more.”

Donzelli said, “The settlement allowed us to better clarify the policy. There was a lot of ambiguity [before] because a lot of principals thought if we post something or we allow something to be handed out, de facto people think that…we as a school or as part of the district endorse or support that. Basically [the policy] is making their job a little easier.”

Attempts to reach the Currans were unsuccessful.

–By Britt Hulit

Read previous coverage:

  • Student challenges Fla. school’s policy on review of independent publications News Flash, 2/9/2004