Court dodges viewpoint neutrality question in Texas textbook censorship case

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month dodged the question of whether the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision prohibits schools from engaging in viewpoint-based censorship, something the courts have disagreed on.

The case, Chiras v. Miller, arose after the Texas State Board of Education 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 a Texas high school student enrolled in advanced placement 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 claimed the board rejected the book in 2001 solely because of testimony before the board by conservative groups that labeled it anti-Christian and anti-free enterprise.

The Student Press Law Center argued in a friend-of-the court brief that even in the context of a student publication that has not been opened up as a designated public forum for student expression, school officials should not be able to censor because they disagree with the views the students are expressing.

The SPLC brief was written by a team of attorneys, led by Joe Sullivan, from the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP.

The 5th Circuit said because textbook endorsements constitute government speech, the Hazelwood decision did not apply.

Plaintiff’s attorneys said they are considering appealing the decision.

SPLC View: This was not the sweeping victory hoped for. But the decision does get rid of a lower court ruling that allowed school officials to censor in-school speech based solely on objections to the speaker’s viewpoint, a position that could have been devastating for high school student journalists in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the three states under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit. For an example of the problem of viewpoint censorship – in what appears to be a fairly classic case – read the story that follows.